Remote hearing participants divided as to their benefits

The Coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown is having a significant impact upon how the family justice system is operating. As we explained in an earlier post, one effect is that court hearings are now being conducted remotely, where possible.

Remote hearings involve one or more of the participants (judges, lawyers, parties and witnesses) taking part remotely, via telephone or video link.

As indicated, it is not possible for all family court hearings to be conducted remotely. This may be because the hearing is not suitable to be dealt with remotely, or simply because the required technology is not available to all participants.

But what is the experience of those who have taken part in remote hearings? Do they think that it is a good or a bad thing?

Last month the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew MacFarlane commissioned an urgent inquiry into the effectiveness of remote hearings used in the family justice system. The inquiry sought the views of interested parties, including judges, lawyers, Cafcass officers and parents. Well over one thousand people responded.

Most of the respondents had taken part in a remote hearing, dealing with various kinds of family cases. The hearings were of all types, including directions hearings, interim hearings and final hearings.

The respondents were asked whether they were broadly positive or negative about their experiences of remote hearings.

There was an even balance in positive and negative responses to remote hearings. This reflected the fact that many respondents felt that remote hearings were justified in some cases in the current circumstances, even when they raised serious concerns about remote hearings in relation to other types of cases.

As to the figures, 22% were positive, 21% were negative, and the other 57% said that there were both negatives and positives about remote hearings. Almost all felt that remote hearings were justified in the current circumstances, although not necessarily for all cases. Some felt that remote hearings were justified for some cases both now and in the future, and only a small number of respondents were against remote hearings in principle.

Notwithstanding the views of some, it does appear that remote hearings will be with us at least until the pandemic is over, and very possibly after that. All users of the family courts will therefore have to be prepared for the possibility of their case, or at least part of it, being conducted remotely (hearings that can’t be conducted remotely will still have to take place in court, subject to social distancing rules).

Of course, they will also have to be prepared to wait longer for hearings to take place, as the courts will not be able to conduct the same number of hearings as they do in ‘normal’ times. Even more reason than usual to try to avoid court by settling your case, and getting expert help as soon as possible.

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