Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, has today published ‘The Road Ahead’ for the Family Court in England and Wales which highlights a number of important points.
Firstly, it is unlikely that anything approaching a return to the normal court working environment will be achieved before the end of 2020 or even the spring of 2021. The court is moving from working almost totally remotely, to a situation where more hearings will either be fully attended by all parties, or where some parties attend and the remainder engage remotely. However, remote hearings are likely to continue to be the predominate method, as facilities available for face-to-face hearings at some courts will be limited. The number of people allowed in each court room and in public areas will be small.
Going forward, there should be consideration to lay parties joining the hearing remotely from solicitors offices, barristers chambers, or other rooms at the court.
There will also need to be a reduction in the amount of time the court affords to each hearing. Parties will be expected to narrow the issues in dispute, and limit oral evidence and submissions to the issues it is necessary for the court to resolve.
The number of private and public law children applications and domestic abuse injunctions have continued at pre-Covid-19 rates, although there has been a significant rise in applications for injunctions in some inner city areas. There was already a backlog in the court processing applications, responding to correspondence and listing hearings prior to Covid-19.
This is essential reading for anyone working within the Family court system. The message for our clients is that the Family court remains open for business and, despite limited resources, has stepped up to the challenges Covid-19 has presented to ensure that justice can continue to be served. In some cases, remote hearings have worked better than face to face hearings, however, there are a number of cases that will require physical attendance, and the court is working to accommodate those hearings taking place safely
The reality to be faced is that the Family Court must now, for a sustained period, seek to achieve the fair, just and timely determination of a high volume of cases with radically reduced resources in sub-optimal court settings.