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We thought it would be useful to provide an update since the lockdown restrictions are easing and the legal system has had three months to adjust to remote working.
During the Covid-19 period and lockdown, the Courts have still been operating, although not to their usual capacity. Save for a dip in the first weeks, the volume of applications being made to the Family Court have continued at pre-Covid levels, and in some areas above that.
At the beginning, most preliminary and administrative hearings were able to go ahead, mainly via telephone. Whereas, many contested hearings or final hearings in relation to finances and children were adjourned, in the hope that these could then go ahead again as normal after a short delay.
As the lockdown period has been extended the Courts have been forced to consider the road ahead for the next 6 months at least. Initially, it was thought and hoped that the effects of Covid would be over by July 2020. This is no longer the case and even though the situation is improving, there is still the need for stringent social distancing restrictions which are likely to remain in place for some months to come.
The Family Courts were already experiencing a delay and building up a backlog of work, which has now been exacerbated. The volume of work in the system is incredibly high. The ability of the system to process cases is now compromised by the need to conduct most hearings remotely. It is envisaged that remote hearings are likely to continue to be the predominant method of hearing for all cases, not just the preliminary or administrative hearings.
While there will be some capacity for the courts to conduct face-to-face hearings, the available facilities will be limited. Social distancing means that fewer people can be physically in the Court arena, and the footfall passing through the Courts will have to be reduced. So if you are attending Court then you must attend on your own and not bring any family or friends with you. Measures are also to be put into place to ensure that anyone attending Court will wear gloves, a mask and bring their own hand sanitiser.
Hybrid hearings will also be an option. This is where all or part of the hearing is held remotely, with some of the parties attending at Court and others attending by video link or phone.
Applications can still be submitted to the Court, whether this is in relation to financial matters, children matters or domestic abuse, however the Courts are prioritising the processing of certain applications over others such as applications for Non-Molestation Orders, Applications for Decree Absolute and children matters.
The logistics of the remote court hearings can be a concern for both clients and practitioners. The Court should inform all parties at least 3 days before a hearing as to the platform to be used for the hearing. This is usually decided by the Judge and the Judge will help set up the hearing, so if the hearing is to be by conference call we will send all of the relevant parties details to the Judge for the Judge to dial the parties into the call for the hearing. Other platforms include Skype for Business, Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc.
We have all had to adjust to many things about the way we work and live, and this is only going to continue. Adjourning cases indefinitely or for a period of many months is not an option, so the Court will be looking for new ways to make sure that cases are processed and heard. The Courts need to ensure that each case comes to a conclusion, especially regarding decision making for children and families, ensuring that any delay no longer has a detrimental impact on backlog, but also that each case is dealt with fairly. Issues in such cases will necessarily need to be limited.
So, whilst the Courts may not be operating in the way they have previously, they are still operating and Court proceedings are still an option for those who need them.
If we can offer any assistance at all then please contact our family department on 0114 220 2186.