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Family court hearings - how do they work in the Covid-19 world and will this be how things remain in the future?

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The COVID-19 outbreak has required organisations all over the world to adapt to new ways of working. Our family courts are in the same position and, as an essential service, they must adopt modern technology to continue to function. If you need to attend a remote family court hearing, it can be stressful and you might not know what to expect, so here we look at what you should know.

Will my family court hearing be held remotely or in-person?

For now, it is the default position that family court hearings will be held remotely using phone, video link or emails. However, there may be certain circumstances where, in order to ensure fairness and in the interests of justice, a court-based hearing is necessary.

Where such a hearing is safe to take place, you may need to attend court. It will be up to the judge, magistrates or panel to decide whether a face to face hearing is necessary. That may be because audio or video testimony is unsuitable for the matters at stake or because of  issues a remote hearing  may present for those taking part.

What if my case is urgent?

Even in the circumstances where a case is urgent arrangements may be made swiftly for the hearing to be conducted remotely. When that is not possible but there are urgent issues to be dealt with a court -based hearing may be arranged while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Locally the court has a one way system in place, the use of meeting rooms and the number of seats that can be used in the waiting room are limited and masks and any witnesses can enter the court building.

How is a remote hearing arranged? 

At the moment the court is handling the arrangements for most remote hearings, most of which are being held by telephone but with a few being held by video conferencing . You or your solicitor will be required to provide the court with your contact details at least 3 days before the hearing.  On the day of the hearing you will be expected to be available on the number provided not only at the time the hearing is scheduled to take place but also shortly before and after. Timings do not always run to plan.

What technology may be used in a remote hearing? 

Remote hearings can be carried out using a variety of communication methods, and the tools that are used will depend on the requirements of the hearing. The following methods may be used:

  • An exchange of emails between the parties involved in the hearing
  • Using telephone conferencing technology
  • Where the court has a video-link system, this may be used. In response to the current pandemic the court has fast tracked arrangements it had in place to introduce its own video conferencing platform which all members of the judiciary will be able to access.
  •  Skype for Business, which has been installed on many judicial laptops
  •  Any other method of communication deemed to be appropriate for remote hearings such as Facetime, Zoom or BT MeetMe.

Remote hearings and confidentiality

Perhaps the biggest issue for the courts when remote hearings had to be introduced quickly was how to ensure confidentiality. All parties to remote hearings must make arrangements to ensure no unauthorised person is in attendance when the telephone or video call is made but that it is made in private. It is also now an offence to make an unauthorised recording of a remote family court hearing under the Coronavirus Act 2020.

Magistrates and judges must strive to ensure that only those who would be permitted to be in the courtroom may have access to the remote hearing and that all parties understand the rules.

Many solicitors and barristers are able to help with the arrangements for attending privately or alongside your legal representative and to help you through the process which can be every daunting.

Is this the future

At the moment none of us knows how long social distancing and the like will need to stay in place to keep us all as safe as possible. In any event the courts were looking at arrangements to enable them to conduct remote hearings. Most judges have now become very proficient in using the technology needed during the lock down and beyond. Legal advisers have also had to get to grips with filing, often large, bundles of documents with the court electronically; gone, probably forever are the lever arch files of pages and pages of documents. The likelihood is then, as with so many aspects of our lives, that court hearings  and the arrangements for them will never be quite the same again.

If you need help with a family problem or have a hearing coming up and you are not sure what to do, at Chattertons we have an excellent and very experienced Family Law Team who can help you. Just call any of our offices to access the help and advice that you need.