In his most recent update to practitioners, the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has outlined his vision of how the Family Justice System should cautiously emerge from the impact of Covid-19. Sinclair Law’s new Family Solicitor Simeon Bowen-Fanstone looks at how this will affect clients?
Remote hearings here to stay?
It is almost certain that anyone involved in a family law case before the Court over the past fifteen months will have attended a remote court hearing in some shape or form. The Courts have utilised a variety of methods, simply to ensure that cases have been heard during lockdown, whether this be simple telephone conference hearings, virtual hearings using Skype/Microsoft Teams, or if the facts of the case/the law has permitted it, traditional attended hearings at Court centres.
There is no doubt that the remote hearings have had a bit of a mixed reception: whilst some clients and practitioners have welcomed the flexibility and convenience that these hearings affords them, there have also been technical issues relating to broadband speed and sound/picture issues, as well as the wider philosophical question as to whether family law cases should be conducted anywhere other than in a Court building.
In his update, the President states that the future of remote hearings will be put to a consultation process, but given the scale of government financial investment into remote hearings to date, and the external pressures on the Court service to cut costs sharply, remote hearings in some form of other, are likely here to stay, and it will likely be left up to the judgement of the individual judiciary in court centres to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether a hearing is heard remotely, or in person.
A rise in Children Act cases
The continued rise of private law children cases, coupled with the higher than normal level of adjourned hearings due to the effects of Covid-19, has meant that CAFCASS (who advise the Court in relation to children cases) has simply become overwhelmed with work in many areas of the country. We are to await further guidance from the President in terms of how he plans to tackle this. However, it’s safe to predict that CAFCASS Section 7 reports will be less freely directed than was previously the case, thus reducing the workload for CAFCASS. Parents will be further encouraged to resolve disputes regarding children between themselves, and, perhaps, mediation attendance will be more tightly monitored than ever before. The President has also indicated that there will be a focus on the issues needed to be determined to dispose of the case, which roughly translated, means shorter hearings, and that the Court will be less tolerant of what it considers to be he said/she said arguments, and will instead be focusing on key issues, and prioritising any domestic abuse issues and child protection concerns.
A move towards fully digital Family Law working
It is clear from the President’s update that he aims to move all family law work to a fully digital platform sooner rather than later. This would probably have already got under way, in private law family work, had Covid-19 not intervened. In terms of what clients will notice: paper applications will be a thing of the past, and all applications will be done online, irrespective of whether an individual is represented by a solicitor, or represents themselves. The downside to this idea is that this assumes that everyone has access to broadband and a computer, and is computer literate. Again, external pressures on HMCTS to cut costs are at play here. The Court estate is constantly being reviewed, and it would be no surprise to see further court buildings close/be consolidated with larger, regional, court centres. This may make accessing courts for hearings more difficult for clients.
Simeon is just one of our growing team of friendly and skilled family lawyers who are here to provide you with expert legal advice. The team at Sinclair Law are committed to providing outstanding service and achieving the best possible outcome for our clients.
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