The president of the family division has drawn a roadmap for what the family courts will look like over the next few months, warning that the normal working environment is unlikely to return until spring next year.
Sir Andrew McFarlane today published a framework for at least the next six months entitled ‘The Road Ahead’.
He said: ‘In the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis, most contested fact-finding or final welfare hearings were adjourned (unless they could proceed, for example, with minimal oral evidence). It was no doubt hoped by many that normal working would resume relatively soon and the delay in resolving the contested issues would not be great. It now seems sensible to assume that social distancing restrictions will remain in place for many months and that it is unlikely that anything approaching a return to the normal court working environment will be achieved before the end of 2020 or even the spring of 2021.’
McFarlane said the fully family court estate should be open to the public by early July, but social distancing will reduce capacity and ‘a good deal of the day to day work’ will have to be done remotely.
Pointing out that the family court was struggling with the pre-Covid workload, McFarlane said there would have to be a ‘very radical reduction’ in the amount of time courts could afford to each hearing. Parties appearing before the court should expect the issues to be limited only to those which it is necessary to determine to dispose of the case. Oral evidence and submissions must be cut down.
Courts should inform parties which remote platform is to be used at least three days before the hearing. Zoom cannot currently be supported by the judiciary or HMCTS. The cloud video platform is being introduced to family court centres starting this week. Judges can use Microsoft Teams. Consideration should be given to arranging lay parties to engage in a hearing from a solicitor’s office or barrister’s chambers.
McFarlane said the task ahead for the family court was daunting but praised the 'can do' approach which he was confident will continue.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.