As we all struggle to come to terms with changes to our lifestyle and working lives, the family courts seem to have adapted effectively to a new set of rules during the Covid 19 pandemic. As lock down, shielding and social distancing may be a feature of life in the UK for some time, remote hearings may also become the new normal.

What are the new rules?

The President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice Sir Andrew McFarlane has issued guidance in the form of the attached rules confirming the “default” position that Family Court hearings should be undertaken remotely either via email, telephone, video or Skype. That said, a Court based hearing should proceed, if it is safe to do one, and where “justice and fairness require it”. This echoes with the President’s recent intervention in a case involving a young girl when he confirmed the case should not proceed remotely. He stated that, “the more important part is for the judge to see all the parties in the case when they are in the court room…. Although that is possible over Skype… it is a very poor substitute to seeing that person present before the Court”. He reiterated that, “Establishing that a hearing can be conducted remotely does not in any way mean that the hearing must be conducted in that way”.

  1. That said, for those not involved in complex final hearings, the process of dealing with cases remotely can be efficient and avoids delays. Travelling to and from court (with bundles) and waiting hours for hearings may now become a feature of the past.

Some tips

  1. Familiarity with Adobe Acrobat Pro DC, or PDF editor, or another comparable package, is essential for compiling bundles online as the Court will only accept bundles in PDF format. The applicant must file the bundle, which complies with FPR Practice Direction 27A by email 24 hours before the hearing.
  2. It may be helpful for your client to have an opportunity of “meeting” Counsel face to face, even briefly. This could take place prior to the hearing on a skype call.
  3. If you are the applicant, you need to set up arrangements for the hearing at least 24 hours before. Correct contact information must be provided to the Court.
  4. When connected to the Court, either by video or audio, ensure your telephone is on mute.
  5. Set up a WhatsApp group (including your client and Counsel) so views can be shared, and you can communicate throughout the hearing.

Whilst some clients may miss the personal interaction with their legal team, costs will inevitably reduce for interim and direction hearings. Many will question the efficacy of this method for final hearings, when it is crucial for the Judge to see each party face to face and for clients themselves to have a full understanding of the process they are involved in.