The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a radical, swift and widespread transition to remote hearings to ensure that justice continued to be served. In my practice area, which involves sitting for Regulatory Tribunals, interim hearings were the first to be listed remotely. As time went on, final hearings took place remotely. Now, almost three years later, the default position is that all hearings take place remotely. Residing in London no longer made sense for me and so I moved to my hometown to be close to family. I set up a home office: three screens, lots of plants and wall paintings to ensure a pleasant working environment.

Since March 2020 at least 90% of my hearings have been remote. For me, this has meant back-to-back days and weeks spent in my home office ‘meeting’ colleagues online 9am to 5pm. Evenings and sometimes early mornings are spent reading bundles or drafting decisions, before I log on for another online hearing. Often I am in front of the screen for 12 hours a day, if not longer.

Hearings have always been unpredictable, but remote hearings bring new challenges – connectivity issues, screen fatigue, increased frequency of breaks, not to mention unexpected telephone calls, doorbells and other interruptions while I am trying my best to ensure a hearing concludes on time. Listing times are sometimes unrealistic, but tribunals are under pressure to clear backlogs and rely on the goodwill of the self-employed. All of this results in more time spent in front of the screen playing ‘catch up’ before and/or after the online hearing day.

One Tribunal acknowledged early on in the pandemic that remote hearings were taking longer to conclude, and so, by default, they were going to start listing long hearings in person, but I have seen little evidence of that happening. Cost saving is a huge factor yet is rarely acknowledged as one of the reasons why Tribunals are maintaining a ‘remote hearings by default’ stance.

With increased time indoors, longer work hours, and no opportunities to meet colleagues, remote working began to impact my wellbeing by late 2020. I considered alternative working arrangements, such as using a room in a local chambers or a co-working site but realised this was impractical; online hearings require confidentiality, and that means isolated working. I was also hearing of chambers and law firms downsizing as members preferred working from home. The human interaction I consider crucial for my wellbeing was still absent.

Realising I was struggling to curb the inevitable low moods that were becoming persistent, I re-joined a gym, bought a new bike, signed up with the local cycling club, and started running again. Whenever a hearing is adjourned or finishes early, I now take myself out of the house and do not seek further work.

Opportunities to network have also disappeared. Occasionally I, or a colleague I have previously worked with in person, have an online chat after a hearing. It has been during some of these conversations where colleagues have told me of their own struggles with remote hearings and how they would appreciate some return to ‘normality’, even if in the form of hybrid hearings. One colleague told me that following the downsizing of his chambers and hearings moving online, he hired an office in the City to prevent himself from ‘falling into the psychological trap’ that his colleagues had. Another told me he will only sit on Tribunals when in-person hearings are scheduled. He is partially retired so can afford to state this preference. Another colleague told me that she has an office on the other side of her garden to maintain a physical separation of work from home, but the thought of ‘being in that office alone everyday’ was unappealing. Earlier in the pandemic a Circuit Judge, during in camera discussions, stated how ‘he hated this way of working’. He has since retired. Recently a colleague said that he acknowledged remote hearings were positive in securing the engagement of respondents and witnesses but was surprised at the lack of consideration of the impact of remote hearings on Tribunal members’ mental health. We concluded that this could only be because no duty of care is owed to the self-employed who can accept or decline work.

And so I read with interest the HMCTS Evaluation of remote hearings during the COVID-19 pandemic research report (December 2021) which echoed some of these experiences:

  • 51% of judges raised concerns about the impact on wellbeing and increased workload.
  • Judges reported feeling more pressured and tired.
  • Established judges reported that lack of human contact adversely impacted their job satisfaction – raising concerns about judicial retention.
  • Legal representatives working in tribunals were more likely to consider that remote hearings take slightly or substantially longer to prepare.
  • Although many legal representatives appreciated the reduction in travel and waiting times, some said they found remote hearings more tiring, their health and wellbeing were affected, they missed the interaction in court and found managing work/home boundaries challenging with increased pressure to respond to emails out of working hours.’

I am not so naïve as to believe that in-person hearings will return to even close to half the levels pre-pandemic – reform programmes are under way to ‘modernise’ the justice system through greater use of technology. I am also aware that some colleagues enjoy the flexibility, convenience and work-life benefits afforded by remote hearings. However, for those for whom remote hearings are posing challenges despite the significant adaptations we have made to accommodate them, I hope the profession will consider:

  • assessing the impact of remote hearings on members’ wellbeing, particularly those self-employed barristers who no longer have a physical work location outside their home and are further disconnected from colleagues.
  • encouraging tribunals to assess the true cost savings of remote hearings, particularly in relation to final hearings given the anecdotal evidence that remote hearings take longer.
  • re-assessing the ‘remote hearings by default’ position: consider a hybrid approach, and maintain a list of tribunal members who prefer in-person hearings and prioritise these for them.
  • providing more opportunities to network and collaborate with in-person training and events.

There is something very fulfilling (if intangible) about interacting with fellow humans in the real world; in-person interaction creates a sense of belonging and professional identity which can never be fully replicated via technology. Chatter during coffee breaks, unless forced, is obsolete in remote hearings and the lack of non-verbal communication makes conversations unnatural. In the rush to embrace technological advances and financial efficiencies we risk losing something valuable that enriches our work and our professional lives.