Remote Hearings in the Family Courts: the new norm?
By Liz Orman, family & matrimonial lawyer
Given the current COVID-19 crisis, the Family Courts are having to adapt in the way they work. Many people feel that this change in working practice is long over due and that moving forward the Family Court system will become more efficient and effective.
Technology is now in place to allow practitioners to make some divorce, financial and Children Act applications online and solicitors are being actively encouraged to use these online platforms wherever possible.
Whilst some Courts remain open, our local Court at Edmonton is currently closed to both the public and staff, causing practical problems for clients and solicitors alike when it comes to progressing a case, seeking a simple update or dealing with hearings. We are told to be patient and wait to hear from them for an update, which is often easier said than done if you have been waiting to have a hearing for months. In urgent situations you should look at approaching an alternative local Court such as Barnet or the Central Family Court for assistance or a response although be prepared for a delay in hearing for them.
When it comes to hearings, the current guidance is that “physical hearings should only take place if absolutely unavoidable” and the new norm is that all hearings should be conducted remotely.
The reality is however that in some cases, it will simply not be appropriate for a case to be heard remotely – for example in a finding of fact hearing in relation to children or domestic violence issues.
In a recent case – Re P (A Child: Remote Hearing) (2020) the President of the Family Division commented that there is “no one size that fits all” when it comes to remote hearings. Just because a matter can be heard remotely it does not mean it must be. The Court and practitioners have to be alive to the issues of fairness and to make sure that all parties are on an equal footing, particularly when it comes to the ability of lay parties to actively participate in remote proceedings.
When considering whether to proceed with a remote hearing, the Court and the parties may consider a range of factors including the seriousness of the case, available facilities, the parties available technologies and the tribunal’s experience of remote working to name but a few. Ultimately the decision when it comes to whether a case is suitable for a remote hearing will be a matter for the Judge due to hear the case.
Feedback on remote hearings so far has been mixed and it is clear that everyone is struggling with the available technology although this is likely to improve over time as the Courts and practitioners get used to using it. Therefore, whilst it seems that remote hearings are likely to be here to stay, what is clear is that pushing forward with remote hearings must not be at the expense of a fair and just process.
Vanderpump & Sykes can help you when it comes to helping you prepare or represent you at such hearings. For further advice or assistance please contact Liz Orman at firstname.lastname@example.org
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