Courts may not be back to normal until next year

Just like most other areas of society the family courts have been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, the lockdown and need for social distancing have meant that many court hearings have had to be conducted remotely.

The President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane has now published details of how the family courts will operate for the remainder of the pandemic, in a document entitled The Road Ahead.

Perhaps the most important point that the President makes is that it is likely to take much longer than many had hoped for the family courts to get back to normal. Sir Andrew makes it clear that he does not expect this to happen before the end of the year, and perhaps not until next spring.

This means in particular that, whilst all court buildings should be open again by next month, court hearings will continue to be predominantly conducted remotely.

Many people have raised concerns about the fairness of remote hearings, particularly where a party or witness does not have a lawyer. The President made it clear that in such cases consideration should be given to the hearing taking place in court, or to there being a “hybrid“ hearing, where (for example) a parent or witness gives their evidence in court, but the rest of the hearing takes place remotely.

The President has also set out a series of guidelines to ensure that remote hearings are as fair as possible. These include keeping the hearing to a reasonable length, and including short breaks; advocates ‘meeting’ with their client both before the hearing to explain what is going to happen, and after the hearing to ‘de-brief’ their client; ensuring that parties can give instructions to their lawyers during the hearing; and, where the hearing involves a litigant in person, the judge should ‘check in’ regularly with any litigant in person to ensure that they are hearing, understanding and following the proceedings.

The President however makes it clear that remote hearings should always be conducted with the same degree of seriousness and respect as fully attended hearings.

You can read The Road Ahead here.

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