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Remote Hearings in the Family Justice System: A review of the Rapid Consultation by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory.

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It goes without saying that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a significant impact in virtually every aspect of our lives.  Arguably, one of the most significant changes for us at Johnson Astills, and for our clients, is that court hearings for Family and Care matters are almost all remote hearings.  This means that solicitors and clients attend the hearings via telephone, or in some cases via video link. 

In light of this significant change, the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, commissioned a rapid consultation of the use of remote hearings in the family court to be carried out by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (for the full report click here).  Over 1,000 parents, carers and professionals in the family justice system across England and Wales responded to the questionnaire on remote hearings in the family courts.

The results of the rapid consultation found that most professionals thought that remote hearings are justified in the current circumstances, however, most parents and carers felt that they were not able to participate fully in telephone hearings and often could not follow what was going on. Furthermore, concerns were raised, with regards to telephone hearings, that is was difficult for judges and legal representatives alike, to read reactions and communicate in a humane and sensitive way.  There were also specific concerns raised in relation to vulnerable groups, such as parties in cases involving domestic abuse, parties with a disability or cognitive impairment or where an intermediary or interpreter is required. 

It was generally felt that hearings via video link were more effective as they were able to mitigate some of the concerns raised above, however it is used far less frequently than telephone hearings.  This is due mainly to the availability of equipment and technological resources to hold hearings via video link.  Additionally, the responses from the participants provided useful suggestions for good practice for remote hearings going forwards.  These suggestions relate to management of the process and effective communication with clients before during and after hearings.  The report also concluded, “further work is required to ensure that the impact of the remote hearings during the pandemic can be researched effectively in order to inform future practice.”

While this report raises some significant concerns with the remote hearing process, it is worth noting that the consultation was carried out for a two-week period from 14th to 28th April 2020, just a few weeks after the courts started using remote hearings.  Furthermore,  the suggestions for good practice outlined towards the end of the report are largely being put into practice by legal professionals.

Following the publication of the report by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, it has been reported in the media that Sir Andrew McFarlane believes the situation has been improving since the introduction of remote hearings in March/April 2020 and that he is working with the judiciary to find solutions to the concerns raised.

All our staff at Johnson Astills are committed to ensuring that our clients are represented, supported and advised to the best of our abilities, especially during these uncertain times.  Please click here to read our related article on how we support our clients with remote hearings and meetings.  If you have any questions regarding remote hearings or issues within Family or Care matters please call us for advice at either our Leicester office (0116 255 4855) or our Loughborough office (01509 610 312)