Family Law in Lock Down

After nearly three months of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have experienced many changes to our usual routines whilst we adapt to these new circumstances. Our homes have become our place of work, the school classroom, the gym and where we spend almost the entirety of the day.

In the absence of childcare, support from extended family or indeed the ability to socialise with friends many people are experiencing practical and emotional hardship. It is therefore understandable that relationships are placed under pressure.

At SM&B, we have seen an increase in clients requiring our services to assist them with all manner of family related disputes. Some of these issues are urgent and require court proceedings to resolve. This begs the question: how are family courts operating in lockdown? Do they use Zoom?

If you thought that, before the pandemic, the family courts were fairly archaic institutions which operated almost exclusively on paper and had fairly limited interaction with technology, you would be correct. Positively, however, the courts have responded promptly to this new challenge, though not without experiencing teething problems and uncertainty for court staff and court users alike.

Firstly, the courts are open to accept the e-filing of documents. Secondly, some hearings are going ahead either via telephone or a remote video platform. Hearings being conducted in person are the exception. Whether court hearings are going ahead, remotely or otherwise, depends upon:

  • the urgency and overall circumstance of the case;
  • whether there would be significant disadvantage to any of the parties if the hearing was delayed for a later (in person) hearing (we have recently been involved with a court hearing for a judge to determine this as a discrete issue);
  • the length of the hearing; the parties’ familiarity with the technology,
  • the experience of the court with conducting a remote hearing.
  • Whether justice can be done in the absence, for example, of a party not giving oral evidence in person and the immediacy of the interactions between parties, their legal advisors and the judge.
  • The risk posed to the parties’ health and the court staff of travelling to and being in one room together.

In our experience thus far, we have had several successful telephone hearings. Other than the potential to be confused whose voice is whom, these have gone ahead smoothly. Unfortunately, in our experience, the same cannot be said for video hearings as we recently had a hearing by Skype where most of the parties’ videos did not work.

These difficulties are inevitable given the courts were not set up with the necessary infrastructure and it is impossible to implement new practises and train court staff over-night. Positively, however, all courts are shortly to be operational on the government’s new ‘cloud video platform’ and guidance as to how to use this secure system is already available online: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/how-to-join-a-cloud-video-platform-cvp-hearing

Ultimately, the courts have transitioned well as could be expected to a remote working world.  What does the future hold when things return to normal? We think that with the technology and training within the court system established, remote hearings, where witness testimony is not required may become the norm. This may save time for the judiciary. It will certainly save time for court users and their legal representatives and therefore reduce legal costs.

By Nykol O’Shea