The Family Courts – what will the family justice system look like in the upcoming months?

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Following the government’s recent decision to place us in yet another lockdown, the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane has updated the framework for the operation of family cases.

Unlike during lockdown 1, the Courts have not closed. Essentially, the message is that attendance in courts should continue to be minimised and instead, remote family hearings will be used during lockdown and in all likelihood until the summer. Face to face hearings will require urgent review unless in person attendance is necessary.

The President states that despite issues with technology at the beginning of the lockdown, throughout the past 9 months the remote hearings have progressed, and it is now the default format for remote hearings to be by video.  He acknowledges that this may cause problems for parties who do not have access to the necessary technology and cannot make the most out of participation. Although the Court is supposed to offer video hearings, we have had lots of hearings across the team since the initial lockdown and the majority have been over telephone. We hope that this will now change in line with the President’s further guidance because telephone hearings do not seem to work as well as those video hearings which we have conducted. Feedback is that parties feel very in the dark and it is a bit too remote. Pre-hearing conferences by video alleviate some of this feeling but generally it would be better for the parties to see the Judge who is making important decisions about their lives.

The pressure of work in the courts and the backlog of cases is still a cause for concern for the system as a whole. It has been stated that resolving this must be done by increased resources and system-wide changes. The Family Courts were already under huge pressure and the pandemic has compounded matters. For example, Final Hearings, even those with only a time estimate of 1 day, are taking 9 months to list.

The need to maintain and enhance good practice with conduct remains. This was an issue highlighted in our previous blogs, due to the possible perceived informality of remote hearings and the impact on the authority of the court.

It has also been reiterated that remote court sitting hours are 10 am to 4:30pm and any hearings outside these times should be exceptional and last no longer than 30 minutes. Urgent cases, as always, will be allocated court time. It also remains the case that Judge’s are to question professionals emailing outside acceptable hours. A normal working day is highlighted as a concern for individual and collective wellbeing.

Despite the difficulties that the remote court system has faced, the Lord Chief Justices’ message on 5 January, has acknowledged the achievement to date and emphasised that there is now light at the end of the tunnel.

At IBB Law we can help you navigate the best approach for your case and in the first instance that will always be with a focus on avoiding contested court proceedings. We can also advise on alternative routes such as mediation, arbitration or private FDR’s.

Speak to our specialist Family lawyers today

IBB Law’s family law practice can provide expert advice on all divorce issues. To contact the family law team please email  familylaw@ibblaw.co.uk or call  03456 381381.