COVID-19: Oxford Brookes and Oxford University academics take forward research into virtual trials

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Emma Rowden

A collaborative project between Oxford Brookes University and Oxford University will support users of the justice system to better navigate virtual trials.

Dr Emma Rowden, Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at Oxford Brookes University, is part of a research team led by Professor Linda Mulcahy from the Centre for Socio-legal Studies at Oxford University (CSLS), that has received a grant under the UKRI Ideas to Address COVID-19 research fund. 

Due to the pandemic, litigants are increasingly accessing the courts from their homes. Through this funding we can make further strides towards increasing access to justice, particularly for those who may face barriers to effective participation in court when having to attend in this way.

Dr Emma Rowden, Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory

On 23 March 2020 all new trials were suspended, because of fears that they could contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Since then, lockdowns and social distancing rules have forced radical changes upon the justice system with many trials now having to take place online.

The project launched this month (from November 1, 2020) and will run for 18 months. It is being delivered in partnership with Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS). The aim is to provide a range of information tools that will help guide and support court participants in virtual trials and tribunal hearings.

Some interest groups have questioned the fairness of such proceedings and have noted the potential for the use of videoconferencing technology to alienate some court users.

Dr Emma Rowden commented: “I am delighted that our research team can progress this important work with the boost of the UKRI grant to address a pressing need within the justice system. Due to the pandemic, litigants are increasingly accessing the courts from their homes. Through this funding we can make further strides towards increasing access to justice, particularly for those who may face barriers to effective participation in court when having to attend in this way.”

The project will be guided by a Project Advisory Board chaired by Sir Ernest Ryder, former Lord Justice of Appeal and Senior President of Tribunals. Sir Ernest, currently Master of Pembroke College, Oxford said: “I am delighted to be associated with this very important research project.  It is led by an eminent and well informed team and will have the advantage of a collaborative working arrangement with HMCTS.  There has never been a better time to analyse data and perceptions about remote working and good practice.”

There is currently very little online support to prepare members of the public for appearing in court from their own home, or to guide them around virtual court spaces. The project will draw on existing research and extensive consultation with the public, court staff, interest groups, practitioners and policy makers, to produce a central resource of good practice materials and a series of audio-visual guides.

The five key goals of the project are:

  • Enhancing technical competence

  • Improving understanding of court processes

  • Supporting court users in navigating the alternative geographies and sense of time in virtual space

  • Engendering a sense of journeys to and from civic space

  • Promoting dignity and gravitas in virtual court proceedings 

The research will focus on family courts and tribunals. The project team will be led by:

Professor Linda Mulcahy (Director of the Centre for Socio-legal Studies at the University of Oxford), Dr Emma Rowden, (Senior Lecturer in Architectural History and Theory at Oxford Brookes University), Dr Anna Tsalapatanis, (Postdoctoral Researcher from the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Oxford).

Pictured: Dr Emma Rowden