The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that the family courts have had to rapidly adapt to ensure the safety of both their staff and the public, while keeping the wheels of justice turning. In practice, this means that many court hearings are being conducted remotely, whether that be by telephone or via video calling.
In April, the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory conducted a rapid consultation on remote hearings in family court, in order to understand how this new practice was affecting everyone in the system including parents, carers, judges, court staff and solicitors.
In The Guardian, Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, revealed that the report included “some really eye-watering examples” of cases “that many felt should never have been conducted in the way they were”.
One example she mentioned included a mother who had to give evidence in her garden shed because she couldn’t find anywhere else out of earshot of her children.
In the article, Lisa says that there is a “strong consensus” that when the family courts are asked to make orders which would result in a child being taken into care permanently or being adopted – or indeed any case where there needed to be witness cross-examination – virtual hearings are “not justice, and not a humane approach that professionals want to take”.
Can cases be adjourned to a later date?
While some hearings are more suited to being conducted remotely (case management hearings, for example), others will be unsuitable for a remote-style hearing. If witness evidence is required, for example, it is highly unlikely that a remote hearing would be effective.
If cases are not suitable for remote hearings, they can be adjourned to a later date.
Who decides if a case goes ahead remotely?
It is for the court to decide whether a case can go ahead remotely. This decision will be taken on a case-by-case basis.
The family courts are having to strike a balance between keeping justice moving and making sure that a fair hearing takes place.
If you are worried that a remote hearing would not be fair in your circumstances, get in touch for your free initial consultation with one of our experienced family lawyers.
Neil Graham, a Partner at Grayfords comments as follows: “The effect of the pandemic has obviously resulted in disruption on an unprecedented level. Although different Courts have adopted different approaches, depending upon the resources available to that specific Court, the overall view that has been adopted is that it is in the public interest for the Court system to continue to function safely and for any delays to proceedings to be avoided or kept to a minimum. The President of the Family Division, assisted by other members of the Judiciary, set out guidance from a very early stage and it is as a result of the significant efforts of the Judiciary and of the Court staff that this has been achieved during the pandemic. Hearings have been taking place on paper, where possible, and remotely over the telephone where required. Where that might not be appropriate, contact can be made with the Court to explore the possibility of adjourning the hearing if there is a genuine reason to do so. Guidance varies from Court to Court and remains subject to alteration. However, until a successful vaccine for Covid-19 has been developed it seems likely that an imaginative approach to keeping the Court system running safely will need to be adopted and that the efforts of the Judiciary and of the Court staff in doing so should not go unrecognised.”