A mother involved in contentious family proceedings was angry to see family lawyers tweet about the benefits of remote hearings, it has emerged in a major report commissioned by the president of the Family Division to inform post-Covid recovery plans.
More than 3,200 people, including 173 parents, responded to Nuffield Family Justice Observatory’s rapid consultation on remote hearings in the family court post-pandemic.
The mother said: ‘I have read tweets from family lawyers saying remote hearings are so much better because they don’t have to travel as much and they have a better work/life balance… I rather take exception to these tweets as a person going through possibly the worst situation of my life dealing with a contentious divorce and child proceedings who needs the family law to resolve our situation.
‘I appreciate that all lawyers work hard but there should be some recognition that remote hearings can be challenging for the lay client.’
A large majority of parents (73%) indicated that they did not feel supported during the remote hearing. Just under half did not have legal representation and others raised concerns about not being at a hearing with their lawyers and the difficulties communicating with them as a result.
The majority of professional respondents saw a continuing role for certain types of remote hearings, but many felt the decision should be made on a case-by-case basis. Main considerations should include the wishes and views of vulnerable parties, complexity of the case, and whether everyone could access suitable technology.
The report says judges and magistrates were the most reluctant about remote hearings when evidence is being heard. ‘It is too hard to manage the parties in sensitive hearings. We have all had parties sobbing down the phone/live link when you know their children are in the next room,’ one magistrate said.
The Court of Protection Practitioners Association said a solicitor recently represented a family member in a withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment case listed remotely on an urgent basis. The family required an interpreter and were not used to using technology. In the end, the solicitor drove to the client’s home to be with them during the hearing. ‘Had she not done so, it is hard to see how the remote hearing could have progressed effectively, or at all. Throughout the remote hearing the interpreter had to call the solicitor’s phone during breaks to relay what had happened during the hearing to the client,’ the association said.
The Association of Lawyers for Children said fact finding and final hearings should be conducted in person.
Suggested improvements included a triaging system to determine how hearings are run, and briefing notes for parents setting out what will happen and how to prepare for a hearing, including a contact point and email for procedural queries.
A district judge shared an example of best practice at Portsmouth, where a dedicated hub has been set up to arrange remote hearings and contact parties the day before to check links and identify any issues.