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Climate change case first to get virtual court hearing amid coronavirus restrictions

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Top judge: Mr Justice Frank Clarke
 Photo: COLIN O'RIORDAN

Top judge: Mr Justice Frank Clarke Photo: COLIN O'RIORDAN

Top judge: Mr Justice Frank Clarke Photo: COLIN O'RIORDAN

A case in which it is alleged a Government plan aimed at tackling climate change is flawed and inadequate has become the first to involve a virtual court hearing.

The Supreme Court today held a case management hearing in an appeal by the Friends of the Irish Environment in which none of the parties involved were in court.

Instead video conferencing technology was used to conduct the hearing in a “virtual courtroom”.

The environmental group is challenging the High Court’s rejection of its challenge to the last government’s National Mitigation Plan.

The move to hold virtual hearings was sparked by the Covid-19 crisis, which has severely limited the level of work that can be conducted by the courts.

In a statement this morning, Chief Justice Frank Clarke said he suspected there would be many such hearings in the coming weeks and months.

But Mr Justice Clarke said that while such hearings are likely to prove suitable for most if not all cases in the Supreme Court and many in the Court of Appeal, different considerations would apply in trial courts.

“Remote hearings will be suitable for some types of proceedings in the High Court and a limited number of cases in the District and Circuit Courts,” he added.

In the statement, the Chief Justice spoke of new procedures which it is hoped will streamline hearings, given the limitations of videoconferencing.

“It is unlikely that remote hearings would be suited to some of the forms of debate between the court and counsel which have been common in the past,” he said.

A new practice direction allows for the possible circulation by the Supreme Court, in advance of an oral hearing, of either or both of a “statement of case” and a “clarification request”.

“The statement of case will set out the court’s understanding of the facts, the relevant findings of the courts which have dealt with the case, the issues which arise on the appeal and the positions of the parties on those issues,” said Mr Justice Clarke.

“Where the court is unclear on any of those matters clarification will be sought. “It is hoped that this procedure will bring greater clarity to the issues in advance and reduce the need for interventions from the court for purely clarification purposes.”

The Chief Justice paid tribute to the Courts Service for putting the videoconferencing facility in place.

“While other jurisdictions have started or announced the commencement of remote hearings, in many cases they were coming from a significantly higher technology base than us,” he said.

The PEXIP video streaming app will be used for hearings, with parties able to join a virtual courtroom via other video streaming services such as Skype, Zoom, Cisco Webex and Microsoft Teams without the requirement that all parties use either the same app or a managed integration tool to connect.

The case management hearing today was screened in a courtroom where it could be viewed by members of the press.

However, journalists will soon be able to observe proceedings remotely under a protocol being draw up.

Today’s hearing took place following a mock appeal last Friday.

“While it was inevitable that some difficulties were encountered I consider that the experiment was sufficiently successful to allow us to move to real hearings,” said Mr Justice Clarke.

Despite the advent of remote hearings, the Chief Justice said the various court presidents were exploring ways in which to increase the number of cases which can be dealt with in physical hearings.

He said it had to be acknowledged that many urgent cases throughout the country were still being handled by judges and staff “often working in difficult conditions”.

“The District Court in particular has, because of its caseload of often urgent criminal and family hearings, had to bear a particular load,” he said.

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