Do you know how to access and effectively participate in remote hearings?
Remote hearings have remained a feature of Irish litigation long after public health measures relating to COVID-19 were lifted. That much is clear from the provisions of the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act, 2020 and the Courts Service Corporate Strategic Plan 2021-2023 envisaging a “future of ‘hybrid courts’, blending the old traditions of physical courtrooms with digital courts as appropriate”.
Experience of remote hearings indicates that mix-ups and mishaps frequently arise in remote court hearings. At a minimum, these errors disrupt and delay the court or mean cases are not presented as effectively as in a physical courtroom.
The video focuses on Pexip, which is the videoconferencing platform used by the Courts Service of Ireland in its current iteration. However, most of the content is equally applicable to any platform.
While the focus is on practitioners, it should also be of assistance to witnesses faced with attending a remote hearing and quasi-judicial decision makers who now conduct their hearings remotely.
The following is a summary of the key tips that are illustrated in the video along with a couple of points that arose from questions raised by those who have watched the video.
Check your broadband speed. You may need to upgrade your broadband package or, depending on your location, consider switching suppliers. If you have temporary difficulty, you may be able to connect through the hotspot on your smartphone (check the internet speed you are getting on your smartphone).
If working from home and depending on your location, you may need to consider a WiFi booster or running a cable from your broadband modem to your laptop.
The more complex you make your setup the more opportunities for you are it to mess up and the more attention it requires. Even more important than cost, the key question is does the incremental improvement in audio or video quality justify the distraction that managing the setup may require.
Make sure your shot is clean, free from clutter and privileged information. The Courts Service’ current version of Pexip does not have a Zoom-style virtual background so if you do not have a clutter-free space use a physical backdrop (a throw or a sheet may work) and/or more complex software, which you will have to learn. If using any other platform, make sure any virtual background is appropriate. Remember, you are in court.
Unless you are addressing the Court, MUTE your microphone. If you are not muted, all your conversations, as well as background noise (dog barking, household chores etc.) will be heard by the Court. And with each noise (however minor) you appear onscreen as the “speaker” so that the entire court will know it is you. There is nowhere to hide.
Do not assume that mute has worked. While logged onto the Court behave as if you can be seen and heard at all times (as you would be in a courtroom). It is better to be safe!
Avoid rooms that have a big echo. Alternatively, try to kill the echo: rugs, heavy curtains and even an offcut of heavy carpet hung on the wall can help.
Do not have two people in the same room connected to the same virtual court unless both are using headphones and only one microphone is on at any one time. Otherwise, the result is strange echoes or howling feedback. This is one of the causes of the (intentionally) poor sound quality in the first few minutes of the mock call over.
Good daylight is great, but not consistent. You cannot “wait for the light” for your remote hearing. A professional look with minimal disruption to existing work or home set-up is achievable by ensuring that lighting is from the front. Even reasonably cheap lighting helps, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QRe8YeQJ6c.
Diffusing your light source helps. If you are sitting facing a large window, even net curtains can do a lot.
Try to avoid sitting with your back to a window but if you must, use heavy curtains to block out natural light in the portion of the window visible in the shot. The rest of the window can remain unblocked to allow light in to bounce off the walls and floor.
The video was produced by Frank Flanagan, a partner in Mason Hayes & Curran, Úna Tighe SC and Tricia Sheehy Skeffington BL members of the Bar of Ireland. A number of our colleagues kindly volunteered to participate in the remote call-over as Judge, Registrar, counsel and solicitors.
 For instance OBS can process your video, which can feed a virtual camera as the input to Pexip.