Are ‘remote’ hearings suitable for all family cases? – Family Law
The Court Service, like many other sectors, has moved rapidly to deal with the effects of Covid-19. Broadly, only 45% of courts remain open to the public for ‘essential’ face-to-face hearings, one third of courts are closed and slightly over 20% are temporarily closed.
For those going through the family courts we have seen a number of changes. The majority of short, interim, hearings are still proceeding albeit either by telephone or by video. Whilst telephone case management hearings have been available in the civil courts for many years it had been uncommon to have family cases dealt with in that way. A few final hearings, where it was felt it was not in the interests of the family to postpone, have gone ahead by way of video hearings. These have in the main taken place with the assistance of tech savvy judges and advocates.
Whilst some lawyers (and judges) have commented publically on how effective the hearings have been, it is clear that experience has not been shared by all. An anonymous circuit judge working in the family court posted “judges like me are compromised in their ability to conduct hearings with the empathy, fairness, understanding and compassion that is rightly valued as an essential element of the family court… there have been times that the extent to which I felt constrained has been uncomfortable and I worry about the impact on the parties, and the wider goal of delivering justice fairly.”
Following the PM’s announcement to avoid all non-essential contact, a three day Court of Protection trial was conducted by Skype in what was heralded as ‘a legal first’. Legal Journalists, keen for there to be transparency in the family courts reported it as “super fascinating… enjoying the occasional meow from someone’s court and checking out the decor of people’s gaffes”. Barristers reported their experiences noting “judicial time had not been wasted nor was a sensitive and difficult case adjourned for months… No-one had to compromise their health and the fact the parties did not need to travel saved significant amounts of public money”.