Remote Family Court Hearings – Lockdown and Beyond by Tanya Bloomfield, Head of Family Department

The Current Situation

The first national lockdown in March brought rapid and unexpected change to Family hearings. Gone were the attendance of all parties at the Court building and we swiftly moved to telephone hearings. Over time the court has also used video platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business. The Court has also started to roll out CVP which is also a video hearing platform.

From the middle of the Summer as lockdown eased, and Court buildings started to re-open, some Court hearings started to take place in person or ‘attended’ (as the Court describes them). This has generally been cases where ‘live evidence’ is being given. Some of these hearings have taken place as ‘hybrid’ which means some parties and their legal representatives attend at Court and some are on a video call.

The Court and all parties are also now working with electronic bundles which means all parties have the full case papers on their computer rather than a paper bundle. However for some hearings where ‘live evidence’ is being given some paper Court bundles are still used.

The Government has specifically confirmed that Court business is to continue and therefore nothing is really changing in this new lockdown from what has been happening in the last few months.

The Future – Will We Ever Go Back?

Inevitably the first national lockdown did lead to a number of court hearings being adjourned and so the court has been working in recent months to catch up on the backlog. This has generally meant that Court hearings relating to children have been prioritised over cases concerning finances. The Courts are still hearing finance cases but they are taking much longer due to the Court focusing on getting children cases heard.

For many years there have been calls for the Family Court system to modernise and streamline. It therefore seems unlikely that these forced moves to remote hearings and electronic paperwork, will be reversed. It seems we are very likely to continue to have a number of hearings undertaken either by telephone or video call. However equally a number of cases are likely to move back towards the traditional attendance at the Court building. This is likely to be considered on a case by case basis.

Early hearings known as ‘directions’ appointments are most likely to be undertaken remotely but hearings where ‘live evidence’ has to be given or where a party needs to attend at Court to properly take part in the hearing e.g because of a disability, are most likely to return to attendance at Court.

Have All the Changes Been Good?

That depends. On the whole a lot of solicitors and parties to Court hearings have welcomed not attending Court. For others this has been hard and they have struggled with the technology and not being present with others.

The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory have completed a consultation and they continue to review the success of remote hearings.

The Court service and all those who use it will continue to reflect and adapt. It is hoped that the areas of concern will be addressed and over time we will find useful ways to use technology where appropriate.

If we can help you with an ongoing Court matter please contact our Family team on 01325 281111.

Employment Settlement Agreements

What is a Settlement Agreement?

A settlement agreement is a legally binding agreement which sets out the terms of agreement to settle a potential or existing employment related dispute.

Most commonly, such agreements are used to deal with termination of employment on mutually agreed terms. An employer may propose such an agreement in a situation where they do not wish to follow a lengthy process before terminating the employment, e.g: redundancy consultation and selection, or in a situation where the employment relationship has become unworkable.

The aim of the employer is to reach a binding agreement which will close the door to a legal action. There can also be a potential advantage to an employee in that they will achieve a financial settlement without the need to commence legal proceedings either through the civil courts or an employment tribunal, which often carry inherent risk that the case will be unsuccessful or the outcome is less favourable than the terms of settlement offered.

The respective merits of legal action and settlement agreement are matters upon which the employee should take legal advice.

What is the legal effect of a settlement agreement? 

By signing the agreement, the employee will receive a financial settlement in the form of payment of the sums and/or other benefits specified within the agreement, however in return, the employee will agree waive their right to bring potential legal actions of the types specified within the agreement. Draft agreements very often contain a lengthy list of potential claims, based upon employment legislation, breach of contract and personal injury.

It is therefore crucial that the employee is given the opportunity to seek independent legal advice regarding the agreement. Moreover, the agreement will always require a certification from the legal advisor that advice has been sought and provided.

The employee must understand that they will be waiving any right to bring legal proceedings in respect of the actions specified within the agreement. Furthermore, it is commonplace for such agreements to include a clause requiring the employee to repay the settlement monies, should they change their mind and pursue legal action.

What could I expect to receive by way of settlement?

A settlement agreement may comprise different payments or benefits with varying positions regarding liability for income tax and national insurance. Typically, payments made under a settlement agreement may include:-

  • A compensation payment, or ex gratia payment. HMRC rules allow a payment of up to £30,000 without deductions for tax or NIC if the payment is compensatory in nature.
  • PILON (Payment In Lieu of Notice). Such payments are subject to deduction of tax and NI.
  • Pay for unused accrued holidays, subject to deductions tax and NIC.

The employee will also usually receive their contractual salary payment and benefits up to the date of termination.

The terms of settlement offered vary according to the circumstances and it is important that the advisor considers and advises the employee appropriately regarding the tax implications of each payment or benefit offered.

How much will legal advice cost?

The general position is that an employer will agree to make a contribution towards the employee’s legal fees, typically the contribution will be between £200 to £400 plus VAT, which will, in the majority cases, cover the whole cost of the legal advice, however the fees payable can vary depending upon the complexity of the agreement.