The Covid 19 pandemic and the resulting lock down has created profound and lasting changes in the way the courts function, and the way I dress and work. We have at long last embraced the technology that is readily available and most civil cases are now being dealt with by a combination of email, written submissions and conference or video calls. Working from home remotely is now much easier. Practice Notes have been issued setting out the new regime and the procedures are evolving as the weeks and months go by.
Whilst being committed to avoiding court when I can and embracing Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) there are circumstances when regrettably court is the only option. As such, I was a familiar figure at my local courts and had managed to appear in most of the courts in Scotland including some of the more exotic and far flung destinations, although Lerwick and Lochmaddy have thus far eluded me .
For the past 4 to 5 months I have not had to venture out of my actual or virtual office and shorts, t shirts and flip flops have become my normal working attire. A beard has also appeared, although that might not last.
So, it was quite a shock to the system to have an actual hearing fixed that required agents and parties to attend. What had been commonplace is now very much the exception.
After locating appropriate attire (suit, shirt, cufflinks, tie and shoes), polishing shoes, impressing myself that I could still master a half Windsor knot, I headed to court (on a blisteringly hot day) to find that we had the whole court to ourselves and that social distancing was not going to be an issue. One way systems, designated seating (4 out of about 120 seats were capable of being used) , individual witness rooms had all been created since I had last seen the inside of a court building. Everyone was very aware of the guidelines and adhered to them and whilst there were quite a few changes to take in, once the hearing commenced, it seemed very normal and in this case very necessary. The sheriff clearly wanted to see and speak to the parties to get his point across and try and repair the damage that had been caused and the rift that had developed and which could easily deepen if things were not addressed.
Whilst neither client necessarily went away wholly satisfied with the outcome an accord had been reached that ensured stability for a young girl who had endured a lot of upheaval in recent weeks. It reinforced how essential the courts are and that parties who have no access to justice are denied justice. The closure of the courts during lock down left a large gap for many parents who were prevented from seeing their children.
The new procedures will take time to get used to but seem to be a very positive and much needed change away from packed court rooms with lawyers and clients sitting around, often for hours, waiting for their case to call, even when their hearing might only last a few minutes. Clients would marvel at the inefficiencies of the system and then smart at the resultant fees that this incurred.
I like the fact that the court can still accommodate exceptional cases which are not suited to the new procedures and which require a more familiar set up.
As an older, baby boomer (just turned 50) practitioner, who earned my spurs in the old fashioned way, I wonder how easy it will be to get to know your local sheriff and to build up a rapport with them when you are unable to have face to face interactions and also how young lawyers will be able to develop their own skills when they are unable to watch a whole court and learn from seeing more experienced lawyers on their feet. But maybe young lawyers don’t have these concerns as most of their interactions are already digital. I will let the millennials speak for themselves.
And the answer to the question I posed at the beginning is no. You do not forget how to tie a half Windsor knot. Once learnt, never forgotten. And thank goodness for that as it was a life skill that takes lots of time to perfect and which can still produce the odd horror knot.
Craig Samson, Partner
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