The conduct of most civil litigation by video-link during the COVID-19 pandemic was always likely to give rise to complaints that hearings were not fair. The Court of Appeal confronted such concerns in ruling that no injustice was suffered by a profoundly deaf care home resident who attended a trial via Skype.
Following her husband’s death in a house fire, the woman, in her 80s, inherited the whole of his estate. However, their daughter later launched proceedings on the basis that her father’s will did not make reasonable financial provision for her. Following a trial, her claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 succeeded and she was awarded £138,918 from her father’s estate.
In challenging that outcome, the widow’s lawyers argued that the fairness of the trial was undermined by a serious procedural irregularity. Pointing to her deafness and residence in a care home that was closed to outside visitors during the pandemic, they submitted that the case should have been adjourned rather than proceeding remotely. She had, they contended, effectively been denied access to a hearing at which her home and a substantial portion of her capital were at risk.
Dismissing her appeal, however, the Court noted that, due to her delay in responding to her daughter’s claim, she had been debarred from participating in the hearing or putting in evidence. That was a consequence of her own failure to comply with court rules. She did have a right to attend the hearing, but that entitlement was reasonably met by enabling her remote presence via Skype.
There was no merit in her complaint that the hearing should have taken place in a physical courtroom. In that respect, she was no worse off than thousands of other people who, unlike her, were entitled to participate in their litigation but who had to conduct their cases remotely during the pandemic. The judge who conducted the hearing had ensured that she was throughout assisted by a member of the care home’s staff. Although he was not obliged to do so, the judge had also read and taken into account a six-page letter that she wrote to him.