A High Court trial was streamed live on YouTube for the first time on Friday after emergency coronavirus legislation paved the way for hearings to be broadcast to the public.
The $530m case brought by the Republic of Kazakhstan and its national bank against Moldovan businessman Anatolie Stati, his son Gabriel, BNY Mellon and others was conducted from a “virtual courtroom” and streamed on YouTube.
Mr Justice Teare had to wait until the Coronavirus Act was passed on Wednesday before he could agree to a proposal from Kazakhstan’s lawyers to use video conferencing service Zoom to hold the trial and stream it on YouTube.
The act, which is not designed to be permanent, contains provisions for more use of video links in criminal trials and new rules about streaming cases live to allow public access.
The spread of Covid-19 has resulted in widespread disruption to the UK court system. New jury trials have been suspended and other hearings either adjourned or conducted remotely via video and telephone.
Fiona Gillett, a partner at Stewarts Law acting for Kazakhstan, said the virtual trial was “a first for the commercial court” and “a necessity in order to keep things running smoothly”.
YouTube is not an entirely new feature of the justice system. The Supreme Court has had its own channel since 2013 and selected Court of Appeal cases have been live-streamed as part of a pilot aimed at increasing public access to legal decisions.
Although the civil Court of Appeal YouTube channel — Court 71 — has just 1,001 followers, the defeat of government plans for a third runway at Heathrow in the Court of Appeal in February was more popular, with 1,900 views.
Video and telephone links have been used fairly often in lower-level hearings in magistrates courts over the past decade but only rarely in jury trials and large civil hearings.
Jonathan Fisher QC, a barrister at Bright Line Law, said the switch to remote hearings was “a must — we have no other alternative” but added that barristers and judges might need to change their style in court.
“Some of the techniques of advocacy won’t translate well to screen,” he said “but the court system has been on a remote trajectory for some years and this is taking it to its ultimate conclusion. I just hope we can draw back a bit [after the pandemic].”