New survey examines how well remote hearings are working

Remote hearings, via telephone or video link, have become the norm for family courts, since the introduction of social distancing restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Obviously, this has been a huge new departure for the family justice system, and it is essential to ensure that the hearings are delivering effective justice, and working as well as possible.

Back in May we reported here upon an early inquiry into the effectiveness of remote family court hearings, which was commissioned by the President of the Family Division and carried out in April by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory.

In September the Observatory carried out a follow-up enquiry into remote hearings, in which it surveyed some 1,300 people with an interest in the family justice system, including parents, family members and professionals.

The survey found that most professionals (86%) felt that things were working more smoothly than in April, and some even reported benefits to working remotely, such as not having to travel to court and not having to have hostile parties face each other in court.

However, they shared concerns about the difficulties of being sufficiently empathetic, supportive and attuned to lay parties when conducting hearings remotely, although more than three quarters (78%) felt that most or all of the time fairness and justice had been achieved in the cases they were involved with.

On the other hand, a majority of parents and relatives (88%) reported having concerns about the way their case was dealt with, and two thirds (66%) felt that their case had not been dealt with well. Two in five (40%) said they had not understood what had happened during the hearing.

There was agreement between professionals and parents that family justice is not simply administrative adjudication but is dealing with personal and often painful matters which require an empathetic and humane approach, and both expressed concern about the difficulty of creating an empathetic and supportive environment when hearings are held remotely.

Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, commented:

“We cannot put the lives of thousands of children and families on hold while we hope for face-to-face practice to resume, and it’s clear that judges, barristers and other professionals have put in enormous personal effort to keep the system moving during very challenging times.

“But equally life-changing decisions must be reached fairly for all involved. The family court is often dealing with incredibly vulnerable people, from victims of domestic abuse to mums being separated from their babies, and they must be supported to fully participate. Our consultation showed great concern among professionals for the experience of traumatised parents facing the system. It also highlighted that many of the issues could be solved with relatively simple measures.”

It is now clear that social distancing restrictions will be with us, in one form or another, for many months to come. Remote hearings will therefore remain the norm for the foreseeable future, and it is for everyone involved in the family justice system to ensure that they work as well as possible.

If you have concerns about how your case will be dealt with, then Family Law Café can put you in touch with an expert family lawyer who can advise you, and work with you on our digital platform. For more information, call us on 020 3904 0506, or click here, and fill in the form.

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