Supporting you with your Family Matters through Uncertain Times
The original article was posted on 19th March 2020, right at the beginning of the lockdown period. Now that we are starting to come out of ‘hibernation’, we consider it is important to review how the family justice system has adapted and changed, perhaps for good.
Over the course of the lockdown we have held numerous ‘virtual’ meetings with our clients and those seeking some initial advice, over applications such as FaceTime, WhatsApp, Zoom and Microsoft Teams. Our clients have appreciated the ease with which these meetings have been arranged and conducted, and so going forwards post-lockdown, we will maintain our ‘virtual’-meeting offering in addition to face-to-face meetings. We understand that our clients have busy lifestyles and often slotting in a video-call into their busy diary is much easier than finding the time to travel to our office for a meeting. At the same time, as government guidance has loosened some of the restrictions on leaving the home, we are able to facilitate face-to-face meetings at our offices and we have formulated a COVID-19 meeting ‘protocol’ to minimise risks to both us and our clients.
The operation of the courts has shifted largely to a fully remote system, whereby most hearings are now conducted remotely or on paper and there should therefore be generally no need for anyone to attend court physically. Courts quickly lifted the requirement for parties to request a remote hearing as it became clear that this would become the default. Hearings that could be conducted on paper were conducted in this way. Some judges took the decision to adjourn upcoming hearings which were not classified as ‘urgent’, which has of course caused delays in many cases. Fortunately, as predicted, alternative methods of dispute resolution, in particular Private FDRs, have in certain cases allowed parties to continue progressing their case albeit outside of the court system. These can be conducted remotely with ease and we have experienced real success with this.
With the current pandemic and the subsequent government advice to stay at home as much as possible, we understand that many people who are seeking legal advice on a family issue might be worried that this will have to be placed ‘on hold’ for the foreseeable future. Whilst this is your decision to make, you should know that our team of family solicitors will continue to be able to provide you with the advice and support that you need in the coming weeks and months.
We can offer consultations over the telephone, via FaceTime or WhatsApp video call, so you can still have a face to face conversation with one of our team. We have invested heavily in technology and infrastructure which means we are equipped to operate from multiple locations and not reliant on being in the office to carry out work on our clients matters. We will continue to put measures in place to ensure we can carry on helping our clients, our staff, our friends and family at this time.
For those who have upcoming hearings in the family courts, the cancellation of public gatherings and government recommendations to stay at home may be more concerning. Hundreds of people pass through the courts each day and it is therefore important that provisions are put into place to protect people from potential exposure to the virus.
Fortunately, the courts have been very responsive to the situation and have provided guidance and reassurance for parties to a case as well as their legal representatives and any witnesses.
The guidance indicates that as far as possible, hearings will be conducted remotely, via video link or telephone or skype. The parties’ legal representatives must consider whether the upcoming hearing can be held remotely. The parties will need to agree on this decision and then make a joint request to the court in a consent order. The court will need to agree before any arrangements can be made for the remote hearing, although this agreement will be forthcoming.
Parties themselves do not need to worry about making arrangements for the remote hearing as this will be handled by the legal representatives. Most barrister’s chambers are equipped to conduct remote hearings. The parties will need to ensure they are available at least by telephone during the hearing in case their barrister needs to take urgent instruction. Barrister’s chambers will charge a small additional fee for a video link hearing to cover the cost of connecting to the court.
It has also been strongly emphasised that where possible, hearings which can be conducted on paper should be. For example, a First Appointment (a hearing to decide on the directions needed to take the matter to an FDR) in financial remedy proceedings can be conducted on paper, or, even better, the parties can make an agreement on the directions and have this drawn up into a ‘consent order’, which would make it unnecessary to hold a First Appointment. Your solicitor/barrister will likely discuss this option with you if they deem it to be suitable in your case.
If you have an upcoming FDR, it has been suggested that this is conducted privately as opposed to through the courts, which means that it can be held at a barristers chambers, with a private judge (usually a senior barrister) presiding. In this case, there would be no need to connect a video link to the court, although it should still be held remotely and the parties would still need to be available via telephone. Again, your solicitor/barrister will likely discuss this option with you if they deem it suitable.
If your hearing is coming up in the next few weeks, try not to worry – the courts are doing everything possible to minimise disruption and keep you safe. Your solicitor/barrister is the best person to speak to if you have any worries or are confused about the arrangements for the near future.
To speak to one our expert solicitors for advice on any family matter, please contact us on 0118 977 4045.
This reflects the law at the date of publication and is written as a general guide. It does not contain definitive legal advice, which should be sought as appropriate in relation to a particular matter.
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We are solicitors in Camberley, Wokingham and London. In 2019, Herrington Carmichael won ‘Property Law Firm of the Year’ at the Thames Valley Business Magazines Property Awards, ‘Best Medium Sized Business’ at the Surrey Heath Business Awards and we were named IR Global’s ‘Member of the Year’. We are ranked as a Leading Firm 2020 by Legal 500 and Alistair McArthur is ranked in Chambers 2020.