Confessions of a Remote Family Court Hearing!

Poonam Chudasama

Poonam Chudasama

 

So, staring at a screen whilst talking and listening to others has become a common place for those who have been working from home. Our offices have now re-opened however we are still getting used to our new ‘normal’. We are continuing to have meetings via Zoom and we have even have a secure meeting area set up at the office which complies with the Government guidelines for returning to work. But what are the other changes that we have experienced in the work place?

As a Family lawyer, one thing I miss is being able to speak to Clients face to face and to understand the difficulties they are facing. It is often difficult to check for cues when you are on the phone and often things are missed. I have noticed that meetings are much shorter by phone, because most of the time my Clients are balancing home life and trying to sort out their legal issues.

One aspect of being a Family Lawyer is attending Court in Children Act proceedings, or to represent those who are settling their finances in Divorce proceedings. My experience of attending Court usually started with a 5 minute walk down New Walk, getting through security and my shoes always setting the alarms off! Then I would wait to check in and look around at the hubbub of the Court room waiting area. I’m talking about Leicester Family Court, and anyone who has been there will understand the experience.

Since the #COVID19 restrictions have been put into place, the way the Court system has been running has changed significantly. Prior to social distancing, HMCTS were looking at rolling out remote hearings and using technology to clear backlog and the demand for new cases. However, when the measures were put into place, the Court system were forced to start using the new system immediately. To further complicate matters, family proceedings has seen a marked increase in Litigants in Persons since the changes to Legal Aid in 2012 and the number keeps rising. The need for HMCTS to ensure that hearings are conducted in confidence and in compliance of the rules is very important for Justice.

My first experience was a hearing via Skype for Business. Prior to the Court hearing, I spent 3 days trying to figure out how to download and use Skype for Business without having to change the firm’s entire computer software. It was not until the morning, that I realised that I could join Skype for Business through a Web app and then my only issue was making sure I had a blazer over my ‘work from home’ outfit! The hearing went ahead, only after an hour of trying to get everyone logged on. By the end of the hour, we were already tired, and I forgot all of the issues I needed to raise with the Judge.

My second experience was a hearing via Skype but a telephone hearing. This time I could only hear all of the people involved, but I couldn’t see any facial cues. One problem I had was that I had to keep saying my name when I spoke because no one could see me and every time there was a connection issue, I had to repeat what I said!

By my third experience, I think I was getting the hang of it and the hearing went ahead without a hitch. This could actually be one positive aspect of the restrictions that I can get used to although I have had to order some more comfortable headphones.

There are advantages to remote hearings, are that waiting times and delays are minimal. The hearing time is set by the Court and that is when the phone call, or Skype call is made. The process is more streamlined because lawyers will have pre-hearing discussions to try and narrow the issues before the Court and only present on the issues that cannot be agreed. The difficulty arises where there are parties’ who are not represented, as it is not always possible to include them in pre-hearing discussions.

During the #COVID19 restrictions, the Family Court at Leicester were not undertaking any face to face hearings. The Court were also cancelling any hearings that needed to be face to face, and that could not be dealt with remotely. These are where there are multiple parties involved, those who need interpreters or have difficulties in understanding the Court process. Parties who need to give evidence would be at a disadvantage if they were unable to attend Court and this would affect their Human Rights under Article 6 to have the right to a fair trial. Things are changing now and as the restrictions are lifting, the Courts are allowing face to face hearings to take place however they are at the discretion of the Judge. There are also Hybrid hearings where some parties can attend face to face and some parties or professionals join the hearing by Skype.

So where does this leave everyone moving forward? Well, HMCTS have issued guidance to suggest that remote hearings will continue for the foreseeable future. The Court system is putting into place measures to allow lengthy hearings which need to take place for more than 2 days and this is something that will be decided on a case by case basis.

Prior to all the restrictions being put into place, I was part of the LawWorks Pro Bono Court service where I attended Court  on a rota to give advice to those who were acting in person. This was a very valuable service and although took time out of my work day, helped me to understand the needs of people who are representing themselves. Often, I would meet people who were unaware that they would be eligible for Legal Aid, or any other support services. I met people who didn’t know much about the Court process and needed some guidance on how to conduct themselves. Now that this service has been suspended, I feel that there is still an increased number of Litigants in Person who need support during this time.

At TML Solicitors, we offer a free initial consultation by phone for anyone who is dealing with Court proceedings. If you wish to discuss an upcoming hearing then please contact us on 0116 2470022 or complete our online Enquiry form on our website www.tml-solicitors.co.uk/contactus

Feature article written by Poonam Chudasama a well experienced Family Lawyer at TML Solicitors. Poonam is Resolution Accredited and can deal with a variety of Family law matters including Divorce, Separation, Children matters and Care proceedings.