Challenge and change: Covid and its impact on Family law

Katie Welton-Dillon, Hall Brown

By Katie Welton-Dillon, Head of Children Family Law Team at law firm, Hall Brown

The last 12 months have wrought immense change on the way in which all live and work.

A full year on from the UK and much of the rest of the world being placed into lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, there are some business sectors which have fared better than others in making the shift from personal to virtual operation.

Those working in the legal profession could perhaps have been forgiven a degree of apprehension when faced with the large-scale restrictions in the court system.

Even though we have become used to a degree of remote working in recent times, the prospect of not only conducting hearings remotely but doing so from home was, at first, relatively daunting.

However, new and very detailed figures from the Ministry of Justice demonstrate the extent to which the legal industry – and the North West, in particular – has got to grips with the challenge which confronted it.

Right at the start of lockdown, there was a flurry of guidance from senior members of the judiciary, including Sir Andrew Macfarlane, the President of the Family Court, indicating that having remote hearings should be ‘the default position…for the time being.’

The MoJ statistics reveal the degree to which family lawyers followed suit. Back in April 2020, almost half of all hearings which took place across England and Wales were undertaken by phone.

By late May, with clients, court staff and lawyers coming to terms with the necessary technology, video hearings became the most favoured method of resolving the sort of incredibly delicate issues with which we have to deal on a daily basis.

I think that there are a number of possible reasons why.

Given the nature of the cases that we handle, it’s important to be able to see the men, women and children who are involved. Video is just so much more personal than telephone.

In the early stages of lockdown, there was also much attention given to instances in which orders to take children into care were made by phone or complete strangers were mistakenly patched into calls.

Interestingly, the MoJ data shows that legal professionals in the North West have been in the vanguard of those most eager to embrace the new remote working practices.

Sixty per cent of all family law caseload dealt with by courts across the region at the end of February was accounted for by online video hearings.

The North West also handled more cases of all legal specialisms by phone between May and February than anywhere else in the country.

It showed a sense of pragmatism too, handling the second largest volume of cases at court in the entire country.

That ability to move with prevailing circumstances has served the North West well before and it will do so again.

Across family law, there are signs that the encouragement from senior judges for alternatives to court hearings are becoming a more accepted part of the way that we work.

Arbitration, which was previously largely relied upon for resolving financial disputes, is now

being used to settle disagreements about children’s well-being. Mediation too is more popular than before.

I believe, though, that the new platforms and practices must be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Remote hearings really can be productive as well as saving time and money with more straightforward matters.

There is a risk that using them for very detailed negotiations might result in cases not settling and ending up in court anyway, with the potential of more stress and more cost from having issues take longer to conclude.

In my opinion, we are likely to have something of a hybrid system in the future, making use of the best elements of both the courts and computerised hearings.

As long as it delivers the support which families depend on us for, I don’t think anyone can really too many complaints.

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