Concerns raised over the use of remote court hearings

Since the introduction of social distancing measures in response to the Covid-19 pandemic the family court has widely adopted the use of remote court hearings, in which some or all of the participants take part via telephone or video link.

Whilst remote hearings are not entirely new, and whilst it had for some time been intended that they would be used more frequently by the family court, this sudden expansion of their use has given rise to concerns about how well they are working.

In response to those concerns the President of the Family Division commissioned a rapid consultation on the use of remote hearings. The consultation, which was undertaken by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, took place in April, and obtained the views of more than 1,000 people.

Obviously, by April there had only been limited experience of remote hearings, and therefore in September the Observatory carried out a follow-up consultation. Their report has just been published.

The new consultation surveyed over 1,300 parents, other family members, and professionals in the family justice system across England and Wales. Whilst some respondents felt that the hearings were generally working well, others raised serious concerns about the way cases are being dealt with.

How are remote hearings working?

Most professionals who responded to the survey said that they felt that things were generally working more smoothly than in April, and some even reported that there were benefits to working remotely, such as not having to travel, and parties not having to face each other in a courtroom.

However, parents, other family members and organisations supporting parents were less positive. The majority of parents and family members had concerns about the way their case had been dealt with, and just under half said they had not understood what had happened during the hearing.

Most professionals felt that fairness and justice had been achieved in the cases they were involved with most or all of the time, but they also had concerns about whether proceedings were perceived as fair by parties in all cases, and they shared concerns about the difficulties of being sufficiently empathetic, supportive, and attuned to lay parties when conducting hearings remotely.

Common problems that were highlighted includedparents taking part in hearings remotely alone, a lack of communication between lay parties and their legal representatives before hearings, and difficulties with communication during hearings because of the need to use more than one device or to adjourn the hearing.

Otherwise, the survey showed that there continue to be many technical problems encountered in most forms of remote hearing. Most problems related to connectivity and common issues identified includeddifficulty in hearing people, difficulty seeing people, and difficulty identifying who is speaking.

What can you do if you are involved in a remote hearing?

If you are taking part in a remote hearing from home then there are several things that you can do to make your experience as stress- and problem-free as possible.

Firstly, and obviously, ensure in advance that the necessary technology is working as it should. If you are using a computer or tablet, check your internet and Wi-Fi connection. Check that any necessary software is installed and set up correctly. If you are using a device that uses a battery, check that the battery is fully charged. If it is a video hearing, check that the camera/webcam is working, and pointing in the right direction!

Secondly, make sure you are fully prepared for the hearing. Seek any advice you need beforehand, ensure you have all of the relevant papers to handduring the hearing, and that there will be no interruptions from anyone else (or any pets!) in your home.

Lastly, if you don’t understand what is happening, or what the court has ordered, say so. Everyone involved in any court hearing is entitled to know what is going on, and what exactly the court has decided to do.