Weekly Family Law Update November 4, 2020

Remote hearings and a new lockdown

New survey into the operation of remote hearings

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, which observes and reports upon the workings of the family justice system, has undertaken a new survey into the operation of remote court hearings.

Remote hearings, via telephone or video link, have been widely adopted in the family court in response to COVID-19 restrictions but, while many improvements have been made in the months since they were introduced, both professionals and parents are reporting concerns about fairness and the ability to practice humanely.

More than 1,300 parents, family members and professionals in the family justice system across England and Wales responded to the survey, a follow up to an earlier survey in April.

Most professionals (86%) felt that things were working more smoothly and some reported benefits to working remotely, for both parties and themselves. They shared concerns about the difficulties of being sufficiently empathetic, supportive and attuned to lay parties when conducting hearings remotely, but more than three quarters (78%) felt that fairness and justice had been achieved in the cases they were involved with most or all of the time.

However, a majority of parents and relatives (88%) reported having concerns about the way their case was dealt with, and two thirds (66%) felt that their case had not been dealt with well. Two in five (40%) said they had not understood what had happened during the hearing.

Both professionals and parents expressed concern about the difficulty of creating an empathetic and supportive environment when hearings are held remotely. There was agreement that family justice is not simply administrative adjudication but is dealing with personal and often painful matters, which require an empathetic and humane approach.

Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said: “We cannot put the lives of thousands of children and families on hold while we hope for face-to-face practice to resume, and it’s clear that judges, barristers and other professionals have put in enormous personal effort to keep the system moving during very challenging times.

“But equally life-changing decisions must be reached fairly for all involved. The family court is often dealing with incredibly vulnerable people, from victims of domestic abuse to mums being separated from their babies, and they must be supported to fully participate. Our consultation showed great concern among professionals for the experience of traumatised parents facing the system. It also highlighted that many of the issues could be solved with relatively simple measures.”

Courts to remain open during second lockdown

Courts will continue to operate during the four-week lockdown in England, which commences this week. The Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon and the Senior President of Tribunals Sir Keith Lindblom have confirmed that courts and tribunals will continue to be exempt from the lockdown measures. In a joint statement they said:

“It is vital for the well-being of the country that the administration of justice continues to operate. The legal profession, the parties, jurors, witnesses, judges, magistrates and court staff are all key workers, vital to the continued running of the courts and tribunals in this proposed period of renewed significant restrictions.”

They continued:

“In March we urged judges across the jurisdictions to facilitate the remote attendance of participants in court proceedings where that was compatible with the interests of justice. The interests of justice are wide and extend beyond the interests of parties in a hearing to encompass the consequences of delay in the case and to the system as a whole. Remote attendance, together with the requirements for social distancing, have led to a significant reduction in footfall in all court buildings whilst enabling thousands of hearings to take place. Significantly reduced footfall will continue to be necessary in this next phase.”