Many people dealing with or contemplating a divorce or separation may be confused and concerned by recent events, and the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on any ongoing (or anticipated) family law proceedings.
When the crisis first struck, we had limited information and, indeed, we still do not know how long it will be before ‘normality’ of sorts returns.
The President of the Family Division recently issued a statement (9th June 2020) in which he looks at the next six months, and envisages how the court system might develop and adapt.
Here is an easy summary of his main points:
We are not likely to return to a normal working environment before the end of this year, possibly spring 2021.
Volume of Court Applications
The volume of applications in the family courts remain high; courts were already struggling to deal with unprecedented levels prior to lockdown.
The family courts will continue to aim for a fair, just and timely determination of a high volume of cases despite drastically reduced resources. The ability to do this relies heavily upon continued communication and co-operation between all agencies involved.
Over the past few months remote hearings have taken place and this has been a learning experience for everyone involved.
Practitioners and the courts have been able to glean information, however, and improve practices in an attempt to reduce any potential for unfairness and to enable cases to proceed now which would previously have been adjourned.
The family courts are now moving from an almost totally ‘remote’ hearing practice towards a ‘hybrid model’, where hearings will take place with some parties present and some parties still engaging remotely.
This transition is a work in progress and practices will develop over time, subject always to a Covid-safe environment in the individual court rooms and the main building. Each judge, magistrate and legal adviser (court clerk) has discretion to manage matters on a case-by-case basis. There is potential for local resources to change and hopefully improve as time goes on, so leading to reviews of local practices.
It is hoped that family courts will re-open to the public by early July 2020 (subject to the above points and requirements for social distancing).
Where remote hearings are still required then telephone hearings may be best suited for shorter hearings and direction appointments where no/no substantial evidence is needed. If a video platform is a viable option, then that is likely to be considered better than a telephone hearing. These platforms are being kept under regular review by the courts and, ideally, all parties should receive at least 3 days’ notice of the arrangements before any hearing takes place.
During lockdown many judges have been working from home. It is expected that most will now return to their court rooms, provided this can be done in a safe and efficient way.
At this time, when courts are clearly struggling to cope with a high volume of cases and restricted working environments it is important to consider alternative ways to resolve disputes, including mediation, conciliation and arbitration.
If you need to seek advice from a legal expert, our solicitors are on hand to offer support across our Hampshire and Dorset offices.
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