Remote family hearings have become the ‘new normal’ in family law with many participants now having to dial in by phone or video link, rather than attending court in person.
The rapid transition to remote family hearings is, of course, understandable and necessary in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, but research by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has identified some room for improvement to ensure remote hearings are effective and fair for all, regardless of a client’s personal circumstances.
The study, commissioned by the President of the Family Division, took place over a two-week period from 14 to 28 April. It attracted responses from 1,000 parents, carers and professionals in the family justice system across England and Wales.
The responses to the survey were evenly balanced in terms of positive and negative reactions to remote family hearings, with most accepting the need for the approach at present and many considering it a positive longer-term development to be considered.
Concerns were inevitably raised, however, about cases where not having face-to-face contact made it difficult to read reactions, body language and communicate in a sensitive way – all elements vital to conducting family proceedings.
Those who responded also reported difficulty ensuring some people’s full participation in a remote hearing and specific concerns were raised about victims of domestic abuse, people with a disability or cognitive impairment or where an intermediary or interpreter was required.
Issues were also highlighted around access to appropriate technology and the technological capabilities of parties and professionals, along with a lack of clarity about whose role it was to set up and support remote hearings in terms of IT, training and pre-hearing communications.
Telephone hearings are more commonly held but the majority of survey respondents felt that video hearings were more effective, perhaps as they overcome some of those communication difficulties experienced.
One of the more worrying aspects were the views of several survey respondents who said they did not feel that they were listened to or treated fairly. This highlights the importance for clients to be able to follow the proceedings, have things explained clearly to them and be able to communicate privately with their solicitor throughout the process.
These difficulties do not just pose a problem for clients, but also for professionals who are striving to advise their client’s properly and to make the best decisions for all concerned.
As a family solicitor who gets to know my clients and makes understanding their situations and developing a strong empathetic connection with them a priority, I can completely understand why some parties, legal professionals, magistrates and judges might feel that remote family hearings prevent them from making those vital human connections.
Remote family hearings are not without merit and there are many examples of good practice where cases have been dealt with efficiently and clients left extremely satisfied. The importance of detailed preparation and communication with clients prior to remote hearings cannot be understated, to ensure cases are properly dealt with and parties have their voices heard. The challenge moving forward is to ensure everyone who interacts with the family justice system has a positive experience.
Most importantly, the system of remote family hearings is enabling family cases to be heard during challenging times, where there has unfortunately been significant delay in dealing with cases, owing to Covid. It looks likely that the process of conducting remote hearings will continue to evolve and improve as parties and professionals become more familiar with the nature of these hearings and how best to conduct them to ensure any potential pitfalls are managed and overcome.
Instructing a solicitor who understands the procedure and who can fully advise on all elements of family law will help parties to navigate any difficult issues with court proceedings and will allow those involved to have a more positive experience.