As any Family Law Café customer will know, technology can be a blessing, reducing the stress involved in family disputes, by ensuring that you can request answers to questions and have access to documents, whenever you wish, and wherever you are.
But technology can also be a curse if its user is not careful, as a High Court judge recently discovered.
Mrs Justice Judd was dealing with a very sad child care case in which the child’s brother had died after suffering a catastrophic head injury. A fact-finding hearing was fixed, for the court to decide who, if anyone, was responsible for the injury.
The hearing was a ‘hybrid’ one, as are many hearings during the pandemic, taking place with some parties in court and other parties taking part remotely, via video link.
The child’s mother appeared in court. In the course of her evidence she complained of feeling unwell, on one day with back pain and blurred vision, and on the next day she said she had developed a cough. The hearing was stopped, and the mother allowed to go home.
The judge then returned to her room, and her laptop was brought to her. The judge then had a conversation with her clerk on the telephone, in which she made pejorative remarks about the mother, suggesting she was feigning illness to avoid answering difficult questions.
Unfortunately, the conversation was heard by the parties who had been taking part in the hearing remotely, as the video link on the laptop was still open.
The mother asked Mrs Justice Judd to recuse (i.e. excuse) herself from the case on the basis of bias. However, Mrs Justice Judd refused. The mother appealed against that decision.
The Court of Appeal allowed the mother’s appeal, finding that Mrs Justice Judd’s remarks about the mother would lead a fair minded observer to conclude that there was a real possibility that she was biased.
Accordingly, the case was remitted back for rehearing, before a different judge.
The case is obviously an example of when a judge should recuse themselves for possible bias, but it also has a moral for all of us: when using technology, make sure that anything that is private or confidential remains just that. Whatever technology you use for such matters should be kept secure, and if necessary password-protected. And remember to log out of secure sites like ours when you have finished using them!
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