Law Society warning over remote hearings

The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors in England and Wales, has warned that the inappropriate use of remote court hearings may impede justice and the rule of law in the family courts.

The warning comes in the Society’s response to a consultation by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (‘NFJO’) evaluating the role of remote hearings in the family justice system.

Remote hearings, via video conferencing or telephone, have of course been widely used during the Covid-19 pandemic, as social distancing measures have made the use of courtrooms problematic. The consultation is intended to inform how the family courts and should operate during the court ‘recovery’ period following the pandemic.

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “Remote hearings have generally found a suitable place in the family justice system … In some instances, they have removed family tensions, made emergency hearings simpler to attend and been more convenient and efficient for advocates, parties and judges.

“However, the biggest factor in deciding whether a hearing should be remote or in person must be any potential impediment to access to justice. If parties feel they can’t fully participate and understand what’s happening, in-person hearings should be the default format.”

She went on: “Parties who lack the appropriate technology (such as good WiFi or relevant hardware), aren’t technologically literate or who need an intermediary or translator may struggle to feel fully involved in remote hearings … Some litigants in person – parties without legal representation – are also struggling with remote hearings, especially when they are complex. This causes difficulties in accessing justice and being able to fully participate, which also causes delays to hearings.”

She suggested that ‘hybrid’ hearings, in which some participants take part in court and others remotely, may be a compromise. However, Law Society members have said that these can be much longer, and the technology isn’t always adequate. The Society says that if they are used in future, ways of improving their effectiveness should be analysed and implemented.

The NFJO consultation ended on the 27th of June. The NFJO will report upon the results of the consultation, and its report is likely to have a substantial bearing upon decisions as to what aspects of remote working should be retained after the pandemic.

The NFJO supports better outcomes for children in the family justice system in England and Wales by improving the use of data and research evidence in decision-making.

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