Family Courts in 2021

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Very little about 2020 can be described as ‘normal’ and the Family Courts are no exception to that.  But the question on everyone’s mind at the moment is ‘what does 2021 have in store?’  When the country ‘locked down’ on 23 March 2020, many hearings in the UK’s family courts were postponed.  With the access to justice being such a fundamental right and many family issues requiring urgent consideration, the legal system soon adjusted to restrictions of the lockdown and settled into a new ‘normal’.

For the family courts, that has meant that the majority of hearings throughout 2020 have been conducted remotely by way of telephone or video conferencing.  There are limited occasions when it has been considered essential to the administration of justice for one or more parties to attend the hearing in person and in these instances the courts have been able to facilitate this in a Covid secure way.

In June 2020, Sir Andrew McFarlene, president of the family division, published a document entitled ‘The Road Ahead’, which set out a framework for the family courts for the next six months.  At that stage it was hoped that the courts would be back to ‘normal’ by the end of 2020 or by the Spring of 2021. As we have seen from the new Lockdown restrictions enforced by the Government on 6th January, that timescale is unlikely to be achieved but it may well be that whenever Covid restrictions are eased, some of the changes brought about by lockdown will remain in place for some time at least.

In September 2020, the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) undertook a follow-up consultation report to expand upon the one that had been completed shortly after the lockdown in March.  It was noted by Sir Andrew McFarlene that “encouragingly, most professionals, including judges, barristers, solicitors, Cafcass workers, court staff and social workers, felt that, overall, the courts were now working more effectively and that there were even some benefits for all to working remotely. ”

Although this consultation revealed that most professionals felt that the remote court system was working well, concerns were raised that some of the lay parties involved did not necessarily feel the same.  Common concerns reported related to;

  • Parents taking part in hearings remotely alone, and from their homes;
  • A lack of communication between lay parties and their legal representatives before hearings;
  • Difficulties with communication during hearings because of the need to use more than one device or to adjourn the hearing.

What seems evident from this consultation is the importance of a good relationship and good communication with your legal representative.  These issues can be avoided through discussions with your solicitor in advance of any hearings to ensure that you know what to expect, your solicitor is clear of your instructions and you know how you will communicate with each other during the hearing itself.  These simple steps can change your whole experience of a remote hearing but are equally important if 2021 sees a return to the old system of parties physically attending at court hearings.

Whilst is remains unclear when and even if there will be a full return to the ‘old normal’ at family hearings, it is clear that for now we have a system where the vast majority of hearings will continue to take place remotely.  If you need any help or advice in relation to proceedings in the family courts, please contact Jackie or Sarah on 01903 229999 or by email at info@bennett-griffin.co.uk