Many parents are appearing in remote family courts alone from their homes, and often without the technology they need to properly take part in proceedings at which life-changing decisions are made, according to a new study of telephone and video hearings.
However the 'rapid research' report, a follow-up to a consultation initiated by the president of the Family Division in April, found that the overwhelming majority of legal professionals believe the courts are working more smoothly and some reported benefits to working remotely, for both parties and themselves.
The study, by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, was carried out in September, and received more than 1,300 responses. Among its findings were that:
- 86% of professionals felt that things were working more smoothly than in April, with 78% agreeing that fairness and justice had been achieved in the cases they were involved with most or all of the time.
- 88% of parents reported concerns about the way their case was dealt with; 66% felt that their case had not been dealt with well.
- 40% of parents said they had not understood what had happened during the hearing.
Both professionals and parents expressed concern about the difficulty of creating an empathetic and supportive environment when hearings are held remotely.
There was particular concern about hearings where interim orders are made to remove babies shortly after birth, with mothers having to join by phone from hospital, or final hearings where care orders or placement or adoption orders were made. The halt in face-to-face contact between infants and parents in cases involving interim care proceedings was also highlighted as a concern, the Nuffield observatory reported. In cases involving allegations of domestic abuse, respondents spoke of feeling 'retraumatised and unsafe' when they had to listen to or see their alleged abuser from their own home.
Responding to the report, Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division, said:
'This important piece of independent research, which holds a mirror up to the system, is a most valuable reflection after six months of remote working. 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.
'However, the report highlights a number of areas of concern that need to be addressed. There are clearly circumstances where more support is required to enable parents and young people to take part in remote hearings effectively. I am very alert to the concerns raised in this report, and I will be working with the judiciary and the professions to develop solutions.'
Law Society president David Greene said that people who have to go through the process without a lawyer may struggle with such hearings. 'This is particularly relevant in emotive cases – such as care proceedings or domestic abuse cases – where there is a real need to have face-to-face interaction with their solicitor, who can offer support and ensure they understand the proceedings.'
While agreeing that in some family cases it may be less damaging to proceed with a remote hearing than to delay proceedings, 'what is unavoidable during the pandemic is not necessarily a good indicator of what is appropriate when face-to-face hearings are possible', Greene said.
'Before making remote hearings permanent in any area of law, there must be more comprehensive data collection and consultation with both the legal profession and court users to ensure such hearings do not impact access on justice.'