COVID-19 has undoubtedly had a huge impact on court proceedings – but the wheels of justice spin on and cases are continuing to take place.

Subsequent restrictions, however, have presented numerous challenges to all involved parties; and new and innovative workarounds are being found.

One specific challenge is the drafting and filing of witness statements remotely, which must be done with consideration of a change to ‘statement of truth’ rules from 6 April 2020.

The statement of truth is a declaration that the facts stated on the document are true and that: “I understand that proceedings for contempt of court may be brought against anyone who makes, or causes to be made, a false statement in a document verified by a statement of truth without an honest belief in its truth.”

The practice direction issued on 6 April this year has added that the ‘process and circumstances’ in which witness statements or other documented accounts are taken must be set out.

This is highly relevant in the present pandemic when we are not generally taking face-to-face statements.

If a statement is given over the phone, for example, the document should ideally reference this, with a reason set out as “because of government guidance cautioning against face-to-face meetings”.

This is an important step to bear in mind when you are drafting documents for the court.

Also, whilst it may be tempting in current conditions to sign statements on behalf of clients or other parties, beware of the risks.

Proceedings for contempt of court can not only be brought against anyone who makes a false statement, but also against anyone signing it on behalf of somebody else. I firmly believe that a statement should always be signed by the person giving it wherever possible.

Another development as a result of COVID-19 is the rise of the ‘e-signing’ of documents. Without face-to-face signing, you might think that email, print, sign and resend might be the best way. But, as I’ve found in recent weeks, not everybody has a scanner and printers are not always reliable.

Documents can be e-signed – but are they valid? Although I had to trawl back several years to find any precedent to whether an e-signature is indeed valid, my view is that they are.

With all the current challenges and a possible rise in satellite litigation cases if people have try to take advantage of the present pandemic, I cannot see the court being critical of somebody e-signing a document. And don’t forget that the explanation of ‘process and circumstance’ of the document should justify why an e-signature is necessary.

There are various e-signing apps available, including Adobe Sign, which tend to be very simple to use.

Serving documents is also a challenge, with courts and offices largely closed right now. Service can take place by email, but only by prior agreement.

So if you were going to send a document to somebody, don’t assume it can be done by email unless you have this prior agreement in place.

It’s also a matter of good practice to state that you will also accept service by email, but only on a case-by-case basis.

Of course, password protecting documents is also vital, especially given the GDPR rules now governing our use of data. This can be done by saving documents as PDFs which can then be e-signed.

Meanwhile, collaboration among all parties involved in cases is proving absolutely key at the moment.

The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) and the Forum of Insurance Lawyers (FOIL) have reached a best practice agreement. (https://www.apil.org.uk/files/apil-foil-best-practice-covid-19.pdf)

This set of standard practices aims to help injured claimants and defendants during the disruption of the pandemic.

Efficient communications, collaboration and flexibilities such as accepting service and evidence by email, and use of video conferencing, are among the various points mentioned in the agreement.

There has also been a very helpful amendment to the Civil Procedure Rules. Parties can now agree to extend most time limits set by the court by up to 56 days, up from the 28 days originally prescribed by the Rules.

However, opportunists beware because when all of this is over I think the court will take a very dim view of parties that have unreasonably refused to collaborate or agree extensions of time.

You do not want to be the person trying to justify to a district judge why you tried to take advantage of the present pandemic. In other words, beware of seeking unnecessary advantage and collaborate where possible.

It remains ‘business as usual’, to some extent, and the courts are trying to run hearings as frequently as possible; so when you are preparing for court hearings don’t assume that they will be adjourned.

Prepare for them as you would for any court hearing but also accept that things might move a bit more slowly, so be patient.

It may take longer to prepare for court hearings, and to get documents signed and served.  Make sure good time management is at the top of your agenda.

Once you have the hearing coming up in your diary, how best do you prepare?

In Manchester, where I work, the designated civil judge recently gave guidance to all parties involved in litigation.

An order was given which has now been rolled out and replicated across the country in what’s known as a ‘COVID-19 order’.

This very prescriptive guidance from the court sets out exactly how the hearing should be done, whether it will be by telephone or video link, and any other special measures parties need to be aware of.

On some of the orders I’ve seen, the court states that it expects cooperation between the parties. Look very closely at your order and make sure you comply to it.

I think it is inevitable that we are going to work in a very different way after the pandemic.

Do all hearings really have to be in person? Do some of them even need to take place at all? Could more be agreed by consent, thus helping to prevent the court system from becoming overwhelmed with cases post-coronavirus?

Another possible development will be a streamlining of the information provided in the electronic bundles supplied to the court.

COVID-19 orders are currently restricting these bundles to 100 pages and so careful thought is being given to what really needs to be in there and what can be removed. Lawyers being more succinct and concise can only be a positive change in the long run.

During the hearings themselves, the disruptive impact of technology failings should be minimised. Check the technology works in advance and, if an advocate loses their connection for example, the judge should be notified immediately.

It may seem obvious, but don’t forget that microphones and cameras may still be on when you have finished talking. Don’t get caught out pulling faces or muttering.

Although you may be sitting in your living room, remember that you are actually in court. Wearing business attire and doing your best to avoid any distracting background noise are of course advisable. Also, staring at a screen for hours at a time and maintaining concentration can be extremely tiring, so be sure to walk around and have drinks and snacks in any breaks you have.

Another step I’ve found useful is to set up separate lines of communication.  Why not set up a WhatsApp group with your barrister or witnesses to communicate with them before, during and after the hearing? (Whilst being careful to avoid posting into the wrong group!)

It can be a hindrance at times, but technology right now is playing a crucial role in the delivery of justice and should be embraced.

We’re also learning new skills and finding more efficient ways of working, many of which could remain in place long after the current crisis.

Richard Biggs is a senior associate solicitor specialising in serious personal injury cases. He is based in Irwin Mitchell’s Manchester office.