Northern Ireland

Lord Chief Justice: Northern Ireland courts `must be careful not to misuse technology'

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan. Picture by Hugh Russell
Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan. Picture by Hugh Russell

NORTHERN Ireland's most senior judge has voiced concerns that virtual Covid-19 courts are unable to offer proper support to people through "emotionally troubling" family law cases.

Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan questioned the suitability of remote hearings in some cases, warning that the justice system must "be careful that we don't misuse" technology.

He was speaking remotely to the president of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association, Brian Speers, for a video for the group's worldwide members.

Last month the first divorce hearings began in a pilot scheme in an effort to release some of the backlog of cases caused by coronavirus restrictions in place since March.

They are focussing on undefended divorces in Belfast County Court, with planning underway for contested hearings in magistrates' courts and elsewhere involving numbers of witnesses or experts (including frontline medical staff, social workers or other professionals), and jury trials.

Sir Declan said while there are "certainly advantages in relation to the use of technology", like much of the Commonwealth, the north has "a criminal system which depends on jury trials".

"People have suggested that the jury could look virtually at the witnesses giving evidence. I don't think there's a huge degree of enthusiasm for that," he said.

"The other thing we wonder about is whether the technology is really suitable for cases where the court has to deal with the empathy that particular clients who come into court perhaps need to ensure that they can give the best account of themselves and explain their position and that of course arises most frequently in family work.

"And although initially there was a degree of enthusiasm for doing family work on a remote basis, certainly in this jurisdiction now that enthusiasm has waned somewhat and I think there would be a concern about having unsupported participants in a family case at home on their own, having to deal with what were really emotional, troubling aspects of their lives and a strong feeling that if you're going to have that type of hearing and environment that people should be there, the courts should be there to support the people was well as hear what they have to say.

"So I think, in the round, technology is a tool we need to use to advantage. We need to be careful that we don't misuse it and I think that's where we are at the moment."

Sir Declan also revealed he is holding weekly meetings with barrister and solicitor representatives "to get an understanding of the areas which were hurting if you like, with both the economy and the individuals within society".

This has led the judiciary to "shift resources into probate", which allows wills to be processed and any financial settlements in them to be completed.