Have you ever thought about spending an afternoon or morning just observing a court hearing?

Well you can, pretty much whenever you feel like it as most court hearings are open to the public. This is both civil and criminal hearings. Make sure though, that you do not attempt to make any recordings or take any photos.

However, a consequence of the advances in the use of remote hearings in the civil court system, is that a lot less hearings are taking place with the parties and Judge in the court room together.

It used to be that the civil court buildings were bursting at the seams with solicitors, barristers, claimants, defendants, witnesses and experts. All requiring the attendance of court staff, most visibly the very busy clerks of the court, bustling about and keeping things running as best they can.

For years the courts have been using telephone for simple hearings.

The pandemic speeded up the use of video hearings. This type of technology has meant that it is much more common for the legal representatives of the parties and Judges to be sat in their respective offices, without actually being physically present in the same room.

The courts are visibly less busy with people than in previous years.

The impact of this is that it isn’t as common or welcoming for interested observers to sit in the public gallery just to observe a public hearing.

The House of Commons Justice Committee’s report Court Reporting in the Digital Age, has picked up on this and recommends that changes be made, to make it easier for the public to know what their rights are in relation to attending court hearings.

Many people would not feel confident in walking into a court, just to sit and observe a hearing going ahead. Many don’t even realise that is a possibility. Cynically it could be said that the lack of prominent information is intentional by the court system, who likely don’t really want the added potential work of the public attending voluntarily just to observe.

Whilst some hearings are indeed made private, so not open to the public, but most aren’t. If unsure, you are best to speak to a clerk of the court outside the courtroom, just to check that as a member of the public, that you are ok to observe.

It is possible to get a log in to observe a remote hearing but it requires contacting the court in advance and providing personal information. It isn’t as freely accessible as just walking into the court building on the day and seeing what hearing takes your fancy.

You can see the current guidance here https://www.gov.uk/guidance/observe-a-court-or-tribunal-hearing

I recommend spending a little time observing a hearing or even hustle the hustle and bustle of the courts. I first did so, when on work experience at the CPS, probably when I was college age. I enjoyed the time I was able to spend, both observing the high volume and quick work in the Magistrates Court and the slower paced cases in the Crown Court.

The government is going to look at the findings and ways to introduce initiatives to increase access to justice and in particular reference to a “charter” to better inform the public.

Watch this space.