Court Hearings and the Submission of Court Bundles during the Pandemic
From the end of the summer last year the Courts in Northern Ireland resumed hearing both urgent and non-urgent cases following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then we have seen the introduction of cases being heard remotely via sightlink and/or webex or on a hybrid basis where, for example, legal representatives are present in court but expert witnesses give their evidence remotely. When possible a small number of cases are still proceeding in person, where it is safe to do so and whilst complying with social distancing guidelines. These tend to be more straightforward cases with a small number of witnesses.
In light of tighter restrictions introduced in this jurisdiction in January 2021 there appears to be a decline in the number of ‘in person’ hearings listed and a further increase in the number of remote or hybrid hearings. It may take several months before we see a full resumption of all court business.
Practitioners are advised to refer to the updated guidance on the Judiciary NI website and the members’ section of the Law Society website regarding court business and the submission of Court bundles.
District Judges and County Court Judges are conducting Civil Bill hearings in person where it is safe to do so. When it is not possible for an ‘in person’ hearing to take place, for reasons set out by the parties on the HR1 form which is jointly completed by the parties and lodged with the Court, or when it is directed by the Judge, a remote or hybrid hearing will take place.
Where a hearing is taking place in person, the practice continues to be that a sufficient number of physical bundles must be present in Court for the hearing. For remote or hybrid hearings it is best to check with the relevant County Court office as some Judges may still require physical bundles to be lodged while others are willing to accept electronic bundles.
If an electronic bundle is required then it should be emailed to the relevant County Court office as an unlocked PDF attachment to an email.
Queen’s Bench Division
Queen’s Bench Masters are currently dealing with all matters (including review hearings and interlocutory summonses) administratively with live/in person hearings proceeding only when it is absolutely necessary.
Straightforward summonses such as summonses for Discovery, Replies, Remittal or Removal are generally dealt with administratively. More complex contested summonses will be dealt with on the papers with the agreement of the parties and the Master will issue directions in relation to the filing of electronic bundles to include written submissions and bundles of authorities. Where a hearing of a contested Summons is required, the Master will issue such a direction.
If a hearing is required either in person, remotely or on a hybrid basis then the party who issued the summons will be responsible for preparing and submitting the hearing bundle.
Hearing bundles should be emailed to the Central Office (email@example.com) in advance of the hearing and served on all other parties.
In terms of Queen’s Bench actions, parties should comply with any directions issued by the Judge in relation to the conduct of hearings and the submission of court bundles. Court Bundles should be lodged in hard copy with the court office unless otherwise directed by the Judge as per Practice Direction 1/2020 revised in January 2021 which states that “the Court office does not have capacity to make printed versions of any document sent electronically so they should be lodged physically with the Court unless specifically directed by the Court to be lodged electronically.”
Court business, although not fully operational, has resumed in this jurisdiction and practitioners have become more au fait with the use of forums such as sightlink and webex which are likely to remain a common feature going forward.
In terms of court bundles, as yet there is no formal system for uploading court bundles in the County Court or Queen’s Bench Division. The current practice is that court bundles should be lodged in hard copy unless otherwise directed by the Court and if an electronic bundle is required it should be emailed as an unlocked pdf attachment to an email to the relevant court office.
Practitioners should refer to the updated guidance on the Judiciary NI website and the Members section of the Law Society website and check with the relevant court office in each individual case.
*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.