Coronavirus (COVID-19) – Will my family court hearing still go ahead?
Family matters are complex and stressful at the best of times. However, since COVID-19 turned everyday life on its head just a few short weeks ago, the family court system has had to adapt to comply with government and public health advice, just like everyone else has had to.
The English courts have a separate division – the family court –, which tries to resolve issues relating to disputes over children and financial settlements on divorce. Although people are encouraged to settle their differences through non-court routes, such as mediation, the family court deals with thousands of cases every year where it has simply not been possible to agree an outcome.
How has coronavirus affected family court hearings?
While the family court initially tried to carry on with ‘business as usual’, when COVID-19 hit it rapidly became apparent that the traditional live court hearings in a small room with a judge could not continue.
As a result, the family court postponed thousands of cases (which were due to be heard within a few weeks) to unspecified dates in the future – this left countless parents and divorcing couples in limbo. Our best guess is that most of these cases will not be dealt with until the autumn, at the earliest.
Does this mean all family court hearings have been stopped?
The lockdown has seen a number of warring parents involved in children cases using the lockdown situation to stop their children from seeing the other parent, despite clear direction from the family court that children under 18 should continue to pass between separated families.
This behaviour, coupled with the fact that the justice system cannot simply grind to a halt, has seen the family court make a rapid move to begin using technology to conduct their hearings remotely – with every crisis, there is an opportunity to look at how things can be done differently.
How will remote hearings work?
Family court hearings can now be held via video conferencing using applications, such as Skype and Zoom, and there is currently a two-week consultation underway to find additional ways to open up more cases to remote hearings.
The Court of Appeal has successfully held cases involving several parties by remote means and, even where people have had to give evidence over a number of days, this is being attempted by video link.
What if my case is urgent?
The family court has also put in place processes to try to ensure that cases involving children are still dealt with through online applications, or in very urgent cases, at the local court remotely. While these processes would likely have been introduced over time, the current need to ensure that there is still access to justice has hugely accelerated the court’s modernisation programme.
Are there any disadvantages to remote hearings?
Some judges have reported that they cannot get through as many hearings as so much screen time is very tiring. Some people have also forgotten that they are actually in a court hearing – there have been reports of people shouting at judges and, whilst this does sometimes happen face to face, it’s clearly easier to do remotely! The court is currently considering using technology to mute people who behave in this way.
A source of interest has also been the video backgrounds of people taking part in such hearings – ranging from the kitchen table to grand studies and imaginative virtual backgrounds.
We’re still going to court… just not as we know it
While it is not really ‘business as usual’, the family court is still open for business and evolving and improving each day as to how it deals with the many issues families are still facing.
If you are in need of advice on a family dispute, whether or not it may end up in a court room, a member of your local family team to help guide you through the process.
Shakespeare Martineau has launched a free legal helpline, with a team of experts on hand for any queries on family and private matters. We are also offering bespoke guidance on a range of other subjects, from employment and general business matters, through to director’s responsibilities, insolvency, restructuring, funding and disputes. Available from 10am-12pm Monday to Friday, call 0800 689 4064.
General advice in relation to COVID-19 can be found on our dedicated coronavirus resource hub