Safety from Domestic Abuse and Remote Hearings
The Family Justice Council has recently published guidance titled ‘Safety from Domestic Abuse and Special Measures in Remote and Hybrid Hearings’. The guidance sets out the considerations for anyone involved in family proceedings including court staff, the judiciary, lawyers and domestic abuse organisation when participating in proceedings where domestic abuse has been proven or may be an issue.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice, explains that ‘the guidance provides an important checklist that should be used to decide upon the format of the hearing, including identifying any need for appropriate personal protection or additional special measures’. This is to achieve safe evidence and full participation of vulnerable parties.
In our experience, the majority of family hearings, are still taking place, but given the current health crisis hearings are being conducted remotely either by telephone or video call instead of everybody attending court. In some circumstances, hybrid hearings have been used where some parties / their representatives attend court in person, and others attend remotely. It is important that no matter how a hearing takes place the victim continues to feel supported and that they have access to the Family Courts.
The guidance provides a checklist of considerations. This includes but is not limited to:
- What kind of environment and level of visibility is necessary in order to ensure physical and emotional safety for the victim and any children involved?
- What kind of environment is necessary to enable the victim to prepare themselves mentally and emotionally for the hearing and to cope after the hearing?
Each case before the Family court is different and every victims’ circumstances are very personal. Therefore, the options as to the format of the hearing will need to be considered carefully. Might a video hearing give the perpetrator the chance to view a victim’s home environment, potentially placing the victim in danger or cause emotional distress to them are extremely important factors.
Even as experienced advocates, we have noticed a difference in taking part in a hearing from your office or even your own home; and we can empathise with clients who, at the end of a hearing, find themselves alone in their home with no face to face support available to them at that difficult time. We hope that our own personal understanding informs the advice and guidance that we offer to clients both before, during and after a court hearing.
The guidance also provides practical guidance in terms of the logistics of a hearing to ensure the victim feels as safe and as comfortable as possible.
The guidance accepts that ‘there may be practical difficulties which may create obstacles to the implementation of all the guidance available’ however it emphasises ‘the risks of harm to victims of domestic abuse if perpetrators are able to use the hearing as an opportunity for further abuse’.
The guidance applies to both circumstances where domestic abuse may have been proven by the Family Courts and where a party has alleged domestic abuse.
The Family Procedure Rules provide guidance to identifying a vulnerable party and what the court should have regard to when considering what directions should be made to assist a protected party. Under the Family Procedure Rules the court and all parties to the proceedings are to identify any party or witness who is a vulnerable person at the earliest possible stage.
It is always essential for all involved in family proceedings to ensure that victims are identified and supported. It is especially important given the restrictions placed on the court by Covid-19 to ensure that such restrictions do not impact on a vulnerable parties’ access to justice. We do not know what the future will hold in terms of when we will return to hearings being conducted in person, or if we will adapt to the new ways of working. However, it is hoped that the new guidance will be at the forefront of the minds of all involved in family proceedings not only during these unprecedented times, but for the future.
At Maguire Family Law we are experienced in supporting clients through their court hearings – whether in terms of the legal advice we provide or the practical knowledge of how to download an app so the client can take part in a hearing. Over the past 8 months, we have used just about every combination of Microsoft Teams, Skype, Zoom, BT Meet me, WhatsApp, Facetime and telephone to make sure our clients feel safe and supported at their hearings and that their voices are heard.