Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the president of the family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has been working with other senior judges across the country to ensure that the justice system remains business as usual.
As part of the guidance released by McFarlane, described as a ‘significant change in direction’ to how the family courts will work and operate, moves have been made for family court hearings to be conducted remotely via email, phone, video or Skype, and that in-person court hearings only take place ‘where the requirements of fairness and justice’ require it, and where it is safe to take place.
In regards to which cases are to take place remotely, the current guidance is that it should be for directions and case management hearings, emergency protection orders, interim care orders, and injunction applications where there is limited evidence being heard.
The guidance sets out that where cases can’t be listed remotely then they are to be adjourned and listed for a directions hearing (to be conducted remotely).
In urgency cases which can’t be conducted remotely, the guidance state that ‘the court should endeavour to conduct a face-to-face hearing in circumstances (in terms of the physical arrangement of the court room and in the waiting area) which minimise the opportunity for infection’.
The change to remote hearings within the space of a week is of course a momentous challenge and change for the family courts. However, as the president states:
These are exceptional and unprecedented times. The situation both national and within each locality is changing daily, if not hourly. I am well aware of the intensely difficult and highly stressful circumstances that all those working in the family justice system are currently experiencing and I am greatly appreciative of their commitment to the continued delivery of justice in circumstances which, only a week or so ago, would have been considered unimaginable.
This guidance is intended to deliver a very significant change of direction in the method of working within the family court, whilst at the same time enabling us to continue to operate and to meet the pressing needs of those who turn to the court for protection and justice.
Similarly, in the civil division of the courts, the lord chief justice has stated that ‘The rules in both the civil and family courts are flexible enough to enable telephone and video hearings of almost everything,’
We at Maguire Family Law welcome the swift response by the family court to move towards remote hearings at this difficult time. The result will mean that parties in family proceedings will not have their cases adjourned or delayed for the foreseeable future, and that they will continue to have access to justice and the legal system. We have already been assisting clients with arranging for hearings to be conducted remotely, and if you have any further questions about this please do contact us.