Survey highlights differing experiences of remote hearings

Sarah Hindle – Head of our Child Law Team

Survey highlights differing experiences of remote hearings

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the introduction of social distancing measures, the family courts in England and Wales widely adopted the use of remote hearings, via telephone or video.

Concerned to know how well the hearings were working, the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane asked the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, which studies and seeks to improve the family justice system, to undertake a rapid consultation on the use of remote hearings. The consultation took place in April, and well over 1,000 people responded. For a summary of its findings, see this post.

Obviously, that consultation could only give an early glimpse of how remote hearings were working, so the Observatory undertook a follow up consultation in September. This time 1,306 respondents completed a survey, several organisations submitted additional information, and focus groups and interviews were undertaken with parents.

The responses highlighted the differing experiences of professionals and litigants, in particular litigants who were unrepresented.

 

The view of professionals remote hearings

The report of the consultation tells us that:

“Most professionals who responded to the survey felt that things were working more smoothly – either all of the time or some of the time. Professionals reported that there were some benefits to working remotely, for professionals and parties.”

Obviously, the most important question about remote hearings is: are they fair and just? Everyone has a right to a fair hearing, and the purpose of court hearings is of course to administer justice.

Most of the professionals who responded to the survey felt that most or all of the time fairness and justice had been achieved in the cases in which they were involved. Just 14% felt that cases were only fair some of the time, and only 7.5% thought they were not fair at all.

legal 500 leading firm logoAs to benefits of remote hearings (apart, of course, from keeping the family justice system running during the pandemic), professionals mention (amongst other things) the obvious benefit of not having to travel to court, especially for those who live far away, parties being less intimidated than they would be in a court room, a reduction in the number of people failing to attend hearings, and the benefit of two people “who often hate each other” (i.e. the parties) having to be in the same room. They also mention the benefits for themselves, including the time saved not having to travel or wait around at court.

 

The view of litigants court

In contrast to the above, the report states that:

“Parents, other family members and organisations supporting parents were less positive about remote hearings. The majority of parents and family members had concerns about the way their case had been dealt with and just under half said they had not understood what had happened during the hearing.”

This is very concerning. The report includes a number of harrowing experiences of parents, particularly in care proceedings where they had their children taken away from them. It is not necessarily suggested that the decisions made by the courts were wrong, but rather that the remote hearing made things even worse for the parents, for example where they were alone at home when they were told of the decision.

As for following what was happening, this was particularly difficult for unrepresented litigants, but there were also problems for those who were represented, but whose representatives were in a different location.

 

Recommendations

remote working lawyerThe report concludes with a number of suggestions, and examples of good practice. These are far too many to repeat here, but they include improving technology, support in person for vulnerable parties, additional support for unrepresented litigants, and improvements in the way hearings are run.

As the report states, and as the news this week confirms, the restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic are likely to be with us for many months to come. Remote hearings will therefore also be the norm for most people involved in family cases for many months to come. It is therefore vital that they work as well as is possible, for all concerned.

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The above is just a brief summary of some of the findings of the consultation. You can read the full report of the consultation here.

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