The president of the family division is considering whether he needs to issue fresh guidance on remote hearings after more than 1,000 people responded to a ‘rapid’ consultation.
A detailed overview of ‘evenly balanced’ positive and negative responses submitted to the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory was published today.
Many respondents were concerned about the difficulties of reading body language. One magistrate said: ‘I find it very difficult to get a proper grip on the case without seeing the parties. Body language etc is so important, and we are relying totally on the local authority for interpretation of what has been said. One knows very well from court that two people can hear exactly the same evidence and understand different things from it.’
Concern was expressed about support for parties to proceedings.
A legal adviser said: ‘This morning during the course of the hearing I could hear a strange sound. I worked out that it was someone sobbing and ascertained it was the mother. I had to tell her to pull herself together in fairly short order so we could finish the hearing. Had she been in court I could have noted her distress sooner and given her time to settle herself. I did give her the option of stopping the hearing altogether but she wanted to carry on.’
Consulting clients was difficult. A solicitor said: ‘I am concerned that the only effective way I can ensure my clients are able to communicate with me during hearings is to use WhatsApp as a back-up channel – which is not secure, and which also requires me to give my personal phone number to a lay client. There will be some clients that I will not be comfortable doing this with, and therefore my communication with them will be more limited.’
On confidentiality and privacy, a judge said they had to stop several hearings ‘as it has become clear that the party has someone else listening on the line’.
A judge hearing an interim care order said the local authority, seeking to separate a three-day-old baby from the parents, ‘were trying to persuade me to deal with the case and grant the orders sought at the one-hour hearing. They hadn’t even complied with their obligations of pursuing all placement options’.
Positive feedback was received on efficiency and having a clearly timetabled court list.
One solicitor said: ‘Remote pre-hearing discussions are more fruitful because all advocates are obliged to establish clear instructions prior to the discussions, and not at court, as was the regrettable fashion previously.’
Some respondents believe remote hearings should continue. A domestic abuse organisation said: ‘As all the non-molestation Orders that we apply for are ex-parte applications, our clients are generally in the middle of crisis and it is often really traumatic for them to attend court.’
McFarlane said he will discuss the findings with judges, the legal profession and others over the next 10 days on whether further guidance is needed.