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/ 31 Mar 2020

Covid-19: How the Family Courts are adapting

Since the government released its guidance that the nation should be maintaining ‘social distancing’ (for most of us, this likely feels a lifetime ago), the Family Courts in the UK, together with the regular users of the courts, have been working incredibly hard to determine how they can continue to operate in the current environment. Now that the country is in lock down for the foreseeable future, these plans are being brought into practice across the board.

 

Maisie Lockyer

Associate

Family & Divorce

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Family Hearings will be heard remotely whenever possible.

Until further notice, the courts have stated that the majority of hearings will be heard remotely. The initial guidance was that this would not apply to hearings where parties were required to give evidence (or specifically, a lot of evidence). However, The Remote Access Family Court guidance has reported the success of a remote final hearing involving five parties, eleven witnesses and the press, which suggests that this limitation may not remain in place.

The initial guidance also suggested that any hearings where neither party was represented would be adjourned, rather than conducted remotely. However, the Remote Access Family Court guidance suggests that if the parties are in agreement, the court can arrange for the hearing to take place via the telephone. It is becoming increasingly common for proceedings to be conducted by parties who cannot afford legal representation and it would seriously affect the population’s access to justice if such hearings were adjourned. It is important at this time to maintain the public’s confidence in the justice system and the decision to continue with all family hearings wherever possible is integral to this.

In addition to the guidance on remote hearings, HMCTS has confirmed that a number of courts will remain open for essential face-to-face hearings. However, others will be closed for both face-to-face and remote hearings. A full list of court closures can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/priority-courts-to-make-sure-justice-is-served.

What platform should be used?

There are a number of available platforms and it is for the parties to agree which will work best for them. At present, the courts are signed up for Skype for Business, which can be used to host video conferences or hearings. This platform is compatible with ordinary Skype for individuals and can even be used by individuals without Skype accounts. However, Skype for Business is being phased out and replaced with Microsoft Teams, which offers a similar service and again, does not require meeting participants to have an account.

Zoom is another option which was proving to be popular. The basic account is free to download and the company has removed the time restriction of 40 mins on the free account so this can be used for hearings without a charge. However, concerns have been raised in relation to the security of this platform and it may therefore be ruled out as a suitable option for court hearings.

Another popular choice for barristers’ chambers is Lifesize. This integrates with the above options so allows parties to connect via whatever platform is most convenient for them.

There are also a number of telephone conferencing platforms that can be used (PowWowNow, BT MeetMe, etc).

In order to agree the best platform for the remote hearing, the courts are listing further directions hearings where this can be discussed and agreed.

Who should make the arrangements?

Where both parties are represented, it is the applicant’s legal team who should make the arrangements and set up the remote meeting on the agreed platform. Where Counsel have been instructed, their chambers will likely assist with this as most chambers are set up on all the platforms already.

If the applicant is not represented, the Respondent’s legal team will be responsible for making the necessary arrangements.

Where neither party is represented, the court admin staff will make arrangements.

Can I submit fresh family applications?

We have been in contact with the local courts our clients use most frequently. Whilst each court will have its own approach, we anticipate most courts will accept applications via email in the current circumstances.

We are also set up on the HMCTS online portal which allows us to issue divorce petitions, as well as submit uncontested consent orders for the court’s approval, online.

Other options

Now more than ever, it is important to look at alternatives to the court process to resolve family disputes. More information on these options can be found here: https://www.hanne.co.uk/family-court-mitigating-delays-financial-proceedings/. The courts are doing everything within their power to keep the wheels turning but we must do all we can to reduce the burden on an already stretched system so that the court can properly deal with urgent matters that need judicial intervention.

How can we help?

We are ready to support you in any way we can and have invested time in familiarising ourselves with the various available platforms and the most up-to-date guidance. We are also able to produce court compliant, searchable e-bundles and can make these available for the court and all parties.

It is important to note that new guidance is being released regularly and we will update this post as new developments come to light.

Family Courts - Hanne & Co's Maisie Lockyer looks at how the Family Courts are adapting during the Coronavirus

Maisie Lockyer is a Solicitor in Hanne & Co’s Family & Divorce Team. She can be contacted at 020 7228 0017.

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