As the immigration tribunal begins to reopen and cases are listed for what have become known as face-to-face hearings, lawyers, clients, witnesses and supporters, and any other court user, will need to know what to expect. Local practices may vary and having attended a handful of such hearings at the Newport immigration hearing centre I can only relay what is happening there. Presumably the practice in the other hearing centres will not vary greatly.
Three days prior to the hearing date, the tribunal will need to be notified of all the proposed attendees including contact details such as email addresses and telephone numbers. Confirmation also has to be given that no attendee is displaying symptoms or has recently been tested positive for coronavirus. Any person displaying symptoms may be refused entry.
Where a person will not be attending the tribunal for health reasons, the tribunal will also need the details of how it is proposed that person will engage with the hearing. Those with vulnerabilities requiring care and close support are also to be notified to the tribunal along with proposals on how they might be supported or risk managed in the context of social distancing rules.
At the hearing
The tribunal warns that the cumulative effect of the additional measures may mean that security takes longer and recommends that those attending allow additional time. This is undoubtedly sound advice. My own experience has been that one or two cases were listed at 10am and then the same again at 2pm, which meant that there was less of a bottle neck effect at security than was previously the case.
Security wands are not being used unless deemed essential and we had to open our own bags and remove their contents for examination. Bringing only what you need and packing light will ensure you don’t get stuck at security. Metal objects including belts are required to be placed on trays and the arch detector remains in place. Security may ask attendees how they are feeling and if they are displaying symptoms they may be asked to leave. No temperature checks were being carried out.
The use of signage and the taping off of sections has greatly increased, on the floors, walls, furniture, and ceilings. In the waiting room some of the chairs have been taped off to ensure adequate distancing is achieved. I found that I had often had the entire waiting room to myself and the appellant. Conference rooms are locked and you will need to ask security if you wish to use them.
I found my cases started more or less on time since they were the only ones case listed at the allocated time slot. There is no need for section 84 forms now. The tribunal clerk ensured that the parties entered the hearing room in a particular order so as to ensure that there is no close contact in the doorway.
The layout of the hearing room itself has been altered. For my cases, the HOPO sat where they normally do, I was seated where the appellants are normally positioned, facing the judge, the appellant where I would normally sit and the interpreter somewhere in the desk-free no-man’s land between the appellant and the judge. Interpreters are also not required to have their forms signed by the judge any more. When it came to leaving the room the tribunal clerk organises a reverse of how everyone first entered.
The layout of any particular hearing room may dictate any of this.
At Newport, witnesses are being taken into a separate, adjacent hearing room and are video linked into the hearing. This is important to bear in mind when it comes to the practicalities of adducing documents and having the witness confirm their statements. Gone too are the days of handing over paperwork or new evidence on the day of the hearing itself. The Home Office and tribunal will no longer accept the physical handling of documents given to them by any other party. If you are sufficiently technologically savvy and can scan and send via email at court that will be acceptable, subject of course to the usual implications that late adducing of evidence might bring.
At Newport they are operating on a maximum number of persons in the court building which is currently set as 24. The maximum number of persons allowed in a hearing room is displayed on the door. Tribunal clerks double check contact details for contact tracing purposes.
Parties may wear gloves and/or masks if they wish to but do not have to.
Double booking of cases for representatives is now not permitted.
The toilet policy is one in out. Sanitisers are provided at the building entrance and in the hearing rooms. Attendees are expected to make appropriate use of these. I had noticed that there seems to be a person whose job it was to constantly go around cleaning and wiping contact points such as door handles, desks, vending machines and tables. The prayer room was also one in one out.
My understanding is that the hearing rooms are thoroughly cleaned in between cases.
There are no longer jugs of water in court rooms or water dispensers in waiting areas. There are limited supplies of bottled water but attendees are encouraged to bring their own tipple be it water, squash or perhaps hot chocolate but nothing stronger (!). Be prepared to have a sip of whatever it is when going through security.
The court staff are always incredibly helpful and I personally found the new experience reassuring. The set up of the hearing process is novel to those used to the old ways but it actually works very well. So far as I can tell the appellants and witnesses don’t have an issue with it; for those with no prior experience of having attended court, they have nothing to compare it to of course. Overall, I was impressed with the effort and consideration that has gone into making not just the court room but the entire environment feel safer and comfortable.