The Family Court and Covid-19
Earlier this month Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, published guidance on ‘The Road Ahead’ for the Family Court in England and Wales. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic the Courts and practitioners had to rapidly adapt to working from home and remote hearings. As we now adjust to the new normal, it is important to consider how we will move forward as social distancing measures are likely to remain in place for many months to come, albeit from early next month they will be relaxed further.
In the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis, the majority of hearings were adjourned in the wake of Court closures. By early July, every Family Court should be open for public use once more. However, the president has suggested that a normal Court room environment is unlikely to be achieved before the end of 2020, with a real possibility that this could extend until the spring of 2021. This provides for bleak reading.
The Family Courts were already in difficulties prior to the current pandemic. There were long delays in listing cases and now there is a significant backlog caused by reduced Court activity over the past 3 months.
The Courts are putting in place new, untried systems to assist with the volume of cases and to ensure matters are heard swiftly. As Courts begin to reopen, there is talk of ‘hybrid’ cases in which some parties will attend Court and others will engage remotely, in order to maintain social distancing. Simply, there is no consistency and so expert advice and careful reading of the Notices and Orders generated by the Court is required.
For those attending a hearing remotely, the platform used must be considered. Whilst many of us are most familiar with Zoom, this is currently not supported by the judiciary and therefore many are encouraged to familiarise themselves with Cloud Video platform (CVP) or Skype for Business. Video hearings are being favoured over telephone, which is likely to only be suitable in short case management hearings.
As the Courts continue to struggle with the volume of cases, practitioners are warned that there will be a very radical reduction in the amount of time the Court affords to each hearing and witness evidence may be limited. It may therefore be worth considering alternative dispute resolution methods, such as a Private hearings with highly qualified barristers or solicitors acting as a Judge, mediator or arbitrator.
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