Remote Hearings: Practicalities and Problems
Due to lockdown and social distancing guidelines, the current default position is for Family Court hearings to be held remotely via online video and phone links. Although, where it is safe for a hearing to take place and it needs to be held in person in the interests of justice and fairness to both parties, the Judge, magistrates or a panel will decide to proceed in person. Consideration is given to the suitability of audio or video testimony in a specific case.
Between 23rd March and 6th April alone, audio hearings in all courts and tribunals across England and Wales increased by 500%, and video hearings by 300%.1 Various technologies are used to facilitate these remote hearings. These include:
- Telephone conferencing
- Skype for Business
- Emails between parties
- Court video-link system
- Facetime, Zoom, BT MeetMe, or any other appropriate method
Remote hearings are organised by either the court or parties’ legal representation, who inform all parties involved of the time and date to meet virtually. It is very important to note that remote hearings must remain confidential and all parties to the hearing must attend in private, without others in attendance or listening in. Under the Coronavirus Act 2020, it is a legal offence if anyone makes an unauthorised recording of a remote Family Court hearing and rule breakers can face imprisonment.
Despite the obvious practicalities of reducing the court’s backlog and increasing accessibility to court hearings during a period of restricted travel and lockdown, the system has faced significant backlash. Worryingly, a major study has discovered that four in ten parents who have been involved in a remote family hearing said they could not understand it.2 66% of parents said they believed their case had not been dealt with well remotely and just 12% said they did not have “any worries or concerns about the way the case was dealt with”. In the pursuit of getting through the long list of delayed or adjourned hearings, access to justice is being compromised. If people cannot hear or understand what is being said about the welfare of their children for example, how can their rights be ensured?
This problem is partly due to the reduction in legal aid available in family law cases and resultantly an increasing number of litigants in person. In almost 60% of cases where a party is acting without legal representation, both the mother and father are doing so. It is difficult for lay persons to navigate the court process at the best of times, let alone while trying to overcome technological barriers, imposed by connectivity problems and specialist equipment, in order to be fully involved in their own hearing. While the world cannot stand still during a pandemic, family courts must be able to hear parties’ true voices in order to reach fair and just decisions.