If you’re the Secretary or PA of a litigation lawyer, you’ll know all about telephone hearings. Since the early 2000s, they’ve been the standard way of dealing with short applications in the courts – in fact, lawyers now have to give reasons why an application should not be heard by telephone, rather than the other way around. For others, though, the idea of having to fix a telephone hearing or conference can still be a bit daunting. Here’s a short summary of the things you need to know.
For telephone conferences that don’t involve the court, you essentially have a free hand in choosing your provider, though your firm may have an agreed provider already set up. For court hearings, though, you have to set the conference up with one of the approved providers. At the time of writing, these are BT, LegalConnect, Kidatu and Arkadin. The list, and contact details, can be found at https://www.justice.gov.uk/courts/telephone-hearings, where you will also find the basic general requirements of the court.
Be aware that if your firm does not already have an account with one of these providers, it will probably have to set one up in order to book the hearing.
The Basic Rules: Making the Arrangements
Make sure you check with your boss on who exactly (which side, and then which person) has the responsibility for arranging the telephone hearing. The basic rule is that it is either the Applicant (if there is a specific stand-alone application), or the Claimant (if it is a “housekeeping” hearing), but if the Applicant or Claimant is a litigant in person, then the responsibility moves down the chain to the Defendant, or to the first Defendant if there is more than one.
The court will normally specify beforehand that the hearing is to be by telephone, so that everyone is clear about it, and if an order in those terms passes across your desk, it is always worth checking with your boss whether s/he needs you to make arrangements. At least one case has been struck out because of a failure to arrange for a telephone hearing; make sure you’re not running that risk. Adopt my legal secretarial maxim: better to ask and get a grumpy response than not to ask at all!
Setting Up the Call
If you are tasked with making the arrangements, you will need to contact the other parties to get telephone numbers and agree whether there will be any discussion time prior to the hearing. This should be relatively simple if the parties are represented. The main thing to watch out for is the question of whether a barrister is attending the hearing as well as the solicitor, because if so, s/he may be on a separate number.
Things can get much more complicated if you are having to deal with a litigant in person. Many litigants in person can be very elusive, whether deliberately or not, and can be reluctant to give out their personal telephone numbers. You can suggest to them that they can, if they wish, check the matter with the court, or you can simply refer the matter to your boss.
Once you have the numbers of all the parties who will be “appearing” at the telephone hearing, you can contact your telephone hearing service and book the hearing. Note that as well as giving the service all the telephone numbers, you also need to state the order in which they should be called: your boss should tell you this, so check with him/her if they have not specifically given you the calling order. You will also need the names of the parties in the same form as the court record, and of course the case number. Once the call has been confirmed, liaise with all the parties again, letting them know.
On the day of the hearing, the telephone service calls each of the parties in the specified order and gets everyone on the line before it makes contact with the court. All the parties (including, obviously, your boss) have to have their calls connected at least ten minutes before the appointed time of the hearing.
Once everyone is on the line and the time for the hearing has arrived, the service will connect all the parties with the court, and the hearing can begin.
Find out whether your boss is intending to deal with the hearing on her/his own, or whether there will be others present: the client(s), or other members of the firm such as trainees or associates. If your boss is going to deal with the matter on her/his own, a speakerphone may not be needed. Obviously, though, if there is going to be more than one listener in the room, a speakerphone will be required.
If your boss has a speakerphone but doesn’t often use it, it’s worth checking a couple of days before the hearing to see that it’s working okay: voices sound clear, there’s no background noise, and so on. That gives you time to arrange for a better phone if necessary.
It may be that your boss will be taking the hearing in a meeting room, either because s/he has no speakerphone or because there are too many other listeners to fit comfortably in one office. It’s even more important in these circumstances to check for yourself that the speakerphone arrangement in the meeting room is adequate and that there is at least one person (that would be you!) who understands how the technology works in that particular room, and – most importantly – has an idea of how to solve the most common problems. Lawyers can get quite agitated when a judge is waiting for them at the other end of a telephone line!
As the legal world catches up with the technological developments of the past 25 years, “virtual” hearings and conferences are definitely a growth area. It’s well worth developing your skills and experience in teleconferencing, including video as well as audio conferencing. Those skills are going to continue to be very much in demand, and will enhance your earning power and your employability.