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 https://www.nuffieldfjo.org.uk/resource/remote-hearings-september-2020 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.