Zoom Fail: Judge fails to realise she can be heard as she criticises mother in the family court
In the wake of Coronavirus, videolink tools have become second nature to many of us in the workplace. Replacing face-to-face meetings, allowing for flexible working, and even taking over many Court hearings – this technology has completely taken over the way we work and conduct ourselves with others.
However, the results are not always perfect.
A quick search over the internet will reveal a wide range of pages dedicated to ‘Zoom fails’, from children appearing in business meetings, to people accidentally adding sparkle filters to their background. One recent (and relevant to family law) example which caught our eye was a case involving the Family Court and a judge caught making remarks about the parties when they assumed they could not be heard.
The case involved a mother and father at the heart of a children case, and the hearing was being conducted remotely online. Following the mother giving witness evidence in the case, the judge accidentally broadcast personal comments made to her clerk on the telephone about the mother, including references to the mother pretending to have a cough and trying “every trick in the book” to avoid answering difficult questions. Unfortunately for the judge, everyone heard her comments as despite closing her laptop, she had failed to disconnect it from the virtual courtroom.
As a result, the mother appealed for the judge to be removed from the case on the basis that they were capable of “giving rise to a real possibility of bias”. The judge refused her appeal, and so the mother took this one step further, to the Court of Appeal.
The three appeal court judges, Lord Justice Bean, Lady Justice King and Lady Justice Davies found that a “fair minded observer” might have thought that the original judge had an “unfair view” of the mother, and as a result they allowed the mother’s appeal and the judge was removed from the case.
Despite removing the judge, the Court of Appeal did show some sympathy, stating that what occurred was due to the “tremendous pressure” family court judges were under as they tried to “keep the show on the road”.
Lady Justice King stated the following:
“During the course of that conversation, the judge’s frustration at what represented a further delay in a case which was already substantially overrunning its three-week time estimate, manifested itself in a number of pejorative comments made by her about [the mother] including that she was pretending to have a cough and was trying ‘every trick in the book’ in order to avoid answering difficult questions.”
The Court of Appeal also held that the judge had not shown any prior bias to the mother or conducted a “difficult hearing”. It also accepted that the judge regretted what had happened and was a “hard-working” judge.
The case highlights the need for vigilance when conducting any videolink conference, meeting or even court hearing, and acts as a reminder when using such software to always check whether or not you are still being listened to when you think you can’t be heard!