Adjournments, remote hearings and extensions of time during COVID-19

Tue, 21 Apr 2020

High Court considers relevant principles in the context of COVID-19

1. In a judgment published on 20th April 2020, HHJ Eyre QC, after sitting (remotely) in a High Court hearing by way of Skype, has provided welcome guidance as to the approach to be taken when considering whether hearings should proceed remotely or be adjourned and in relation to applications for extensions of time to comply with deadlines.

2. In Muncipio De Mariana & Ors v BHP Group Plc [2020] EWHC 928 (TCC), HHJ Eyre QC set out the principles in relation to adjournments and remote hearings at [24] of his judgment:

a) Regard must be had to the importance of the continued administration of justice. Justice delayed is justice denied even when the delay results from a response to the currently prevailing circumstances.

b) There is to be a recognition of the extent to which disputes can in fact be resolved fairly by way of remote hearings.

c) The courts must be prepared to hold remote hearings in circumstances where such a move would have been inconceivable only a matter of weeks ago.

d) There is to be rigorous examination of the possibility of a remote hearing and of the ways in which such a hearing could be achieved consistent with justice before the court should accept that a just determination cannot be achieved in such a hearing.

e) Inevitably the question of whether there can be a fair resolution is possible by way of a remote hearing will be case-specific. A multiplicity of factors will come into play and the issue of whether and if so to what extent live evidence and cross-examination will be necessary is likely to be important in many cases. There will be cases where the court cannot be satisfied that a fair resolution can be achieved by way of a remote hearing.

3. As to extensions of time, HHJ Eyre QC set out the principles at [32] of his judgment:

a) The objective if it is achievable must be to be keep to existing deadlines and where that is not realistically possible to permit the minimum extension of time which is realistically practicable. The prompt administration of justice and compliance with court orders remain of great importance even in circumstances of a pandemic.

b) The court can expect legal professionals to make appropriate use of modern technology. Just as the courts are accepting that hearings can properly be heard remotely in circumstances where this would have been dismissed out of hand only a few weeks ago so the court can expect legal professionals to use methods of remote working and of remote contact with witnesses and others.

c) While recognising the real difficulties caused by the pandemic and by the restrictions imposed to meet it the court can expect legal professionals to seek to rise to that challenge. Lawyers can be expected to go further than they might otherwise be expected to go in normal circumstances and particularly is this so where there is a deadline to be met (and even more so when failing to meet the deadline will jeopardise a trial date). So the court can expect and require from lawyers a degree of readiness to put up with inconveniences; to use imaginative and innovative methods of working; and to acquire the new skills needed for the effective use of remote technology. As I have already noted metaphors may not be particularly helpful but the court can expect those involved to roll up their sleeves or to go the extra mile to address the problems encountered in the current circumstances. It is not enough for those involved simply to throw up their hands and to say that because there are difficulties deadlines cannot be kept.

d) The approach which is required of lawyers can also be expected from those expert witnesses who are themselves professionals. However, rather different considerations are likely to apply where the persons who will need to take particular measures are private individuals falling outside those categories.

e) The court should be willing to accept evidence and other material which is rather less polished and focused than would otherwise be required if that is necessary to achieve the timely production of the material.

f) However, the court must also take account of the realities of the position and while requiring lawyers and other professionals to press forward care must be taken to avoid requiring compliance with deadlines which are not achievable even with proper effort.

g) It is in the light of that preceding factor that the court must be conscious that it is likely to take longer and require more work to achieve a particular result (such as the production of evidence) by remote working than would be possible by more traditional methods.

h) In the same way the court must have regard to the consequences of the restrictions on movement and the steps by way of working from home which have been taken to address the pandemic. In current circumstances the remote dealings are not between teams located in two or more sets of well-equipped offices with fast internet connexions and with teams of IT support staff at hand. Instead they are being conducted from a number of different locations with varying amounts of space; varying qualities of internet connexion; and with such IT support as is available being provided remotely. In addition those working from home will be working from homes where in many cases they will be caring for sick family members or for children or in circumstances where they are providing support to vulnerable relatives at another location.

i) Those factors are to be considered against the general position that an extension of time which requires the loss of a trial date has much more significance and will be granted much less readily than an extension of time which does not have that effect. That remains the position in the current circumstances and before acceding to an application for an extension of time which would cause the loss of a trial date the court must be confident that there is no alternative which is compatible with dealing fairly with the case.

4. Litigators should apply these factors when analysing whether to seek, or agree to, an adjournment, a hearing to be heard remotely or an extension of time.

5. The clear message from the judiciary is that these extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and to that effect the courts are adapting, and expecting parties to adapt, in order to keep the wheels of justice moving.

6. On a practical level, HHJ Eyre QC expressed the view that courts should be willing to accept evidence and other material which is rather less polished and focused and recognised that it is likely to take longer and require more work to achieve a particular result remotely than by traditional methods (such as the production of evidence). The detailed guidance set out in the judgment will assist litigants in deciding next steps for caseloads and how to react to applications made by opposing parties.

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