The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, sets out in The Family Court and COVID 19: The Road Ahead a structure for the ongoing operation of the Family Court for at least the next 6 months. It sets out very clearly that the Judiciary and HMCTS do not envisage a return to the ‘normal’ court working environment before the end of the year and possibly not until the Spring of 2021.
The ‘Road Ahead’ deals with a number of important matters including the following:-
- It is going to be a long road back to normality – the report suggests that although lockdown measures have eased throughout June and will ease further in July, HMCTS do not expect that the court systems will be back to anything like normality before end of 2020 or even the spring of 2021.
- The Court service is extremely busy – even before Covid-19 the court service was very busy and in some courts there were significant periods of time between one hearing to the next. This is now likely to worsen. Traffic is high and the health pandemic has not slowed this down. In fact, in some areas such as Domestic Violence related matters, some courts have seen an increase in court applications. In addition, the judiciary are expecting a surge in child protection cases as we ease out of lockdown and Social Services are able to work more normally. One of the ways to seek to combat this issue will be a reduction in the time the court gives to each hearing.
- How the Court service is working now – in most areas all courts are working totally remotely, with only few courts remaining open for face to face hearings. They envisage the re-opening of more courts over the coming weeks where at least some hearings can take place fully attended. This will only be in those courts that can facilitate this and accommodate social distancing. The safety of the judiciary, court staff and attendees will be the priority. What is clear to everyone is that even if some hearings are attended, the majority of the court work will remain to be undertaken remotely.
- The re-opening of court buildings and court rooms – it is expected that by July more court buildings will be open for public use, at a significantly reduced capacity, given the social distancing measures that will have to be in place.
- The use of remote platforms – these have been fundamental in the courts ability to work at all over the past few months and the services will be rolled out more widely over the coming months. Platforms such as, Cloud Video Platform, Skype for Business and BT meet me are being used several times a day by Judges working both in the court and from home. The services are being prepared by HMCTS for wider use and will remain available for some time yet and possibly a constant feature of the family court future.
- Judges have been and continue to work from home – throughout the pandemic Judges, solicitors and barristers alike have worked from home. The judiciary expect that that the majority of Judges will return to the court buildings as they are opened. Where it is not possible for a Judge to do so they will continue to work form home remotely.
- Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) – continues to be encouraged by the judiciary and will in almost all cases now provide the client with a far quicker resolution to whatever their legal issue.
The president concludes the report by praising the court staff members, legal professionals, lay parties and the judiciary in their efforts to continue to deliver an outcome in as many cases as possible in these unprecedented times.
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This article was written by Jennifer Herbert, Senior Associate in the Family Law team at Pinney Talfourd LLP Solicitors. The contents of this article are for the purposes of general awareness only. They do not purport to constitute legal or professional advice. Specific legal advice should be taken on each individual matter. This article is based on the law as of June 2020.