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Remote Hearings Widely Introduced in the Family Courts Due to Coronavirus

For a number of years, there have been proposals for the Courts in England and Wales to move towards a more digitised way of working. The impact of the current Coronavirus pandemic coupled with the importance of being able to keep the Courts open has led to a sudden and rapid development in this regard.

The new default position is that all family court hearings should now be dealt with remotely via email, telephone or video (eg. Skype for Business, BT MeetMe, Zoom) if at all possible. Furthermore, the physical lodging and handling of documents should be avoided with documents filed by email instead and ebundles used for the hearings. It is envisaged that the large majority of hearings including any urgent applications will be able to be dealt with remotely in this manner. Given the very sudden change in circumstances with Coronavirus it is likely however that the Courts in some areas of England and Wales will adapt more quickly and in a slightly different manner to Courts in other areas. It will, therefore, be necessary to check what procedures are in place in any particular Court in advance of any hearing. This is particularly the case given that procedures are likely to be revised over the coming weeks depending on how matters are progressing.

In the Sussex Family Courts, hearings listed for more than half a day, which are likely to be more complicated, are being listed for 1-hour case management hearings so that consideration can be given as to how the matter should proceed and whether the hearing can take place remotely.

The effect of Coronavirus on financial matters including court procedure were dealt with briefly in our previous Blog “Impact on Financial Matters caused by Coronavirus”. In relation to children matters, such as applications for Child Arrangement Orders, a new Protocol and template order has now been circulated relating to first hearings (known as FHDRA’s) and how they should be dealt with. In summary, it is expected that this will involve the following:

  • The Family Court Adviser (CAFCASS) will carry out safeguarding checks including telephone interviews with the parties, but not face to face meetings, in advance of the hearing.
  • The Family Court Adviser will not attend Court for the hearing but will be available by telephone if required.
  • The Court will telephone the parties and their representatives from the Court room using a telephone conference system.
  • The Parties should remain in email contact with their advocates during the hearing in order to provide instructions.
  • No unauthorised person should be present at the telephone hearing and when asked, each person will need to confirm who is in attendance with them.
  • The Court will ensure that the hearing is recorded.
  • All parties are forbidden from recording the hearing themselves and are forbidden from allowing anyone else to record it.
  • It should be noted for the purpose of any Orders that contact centres are currently shut and Separated Parents Information Programmes and Domestic Abuse programmes are not currently running.

This is currently a fast-moving area and there are likely to be further changes in relation to how the Courts operate in the coming weeks. Therefore, if you have a hearing listed in the next few months and require any further information or advice then please do not hesitate to contact us.

 

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