Looking back: The biggest family law story of 2020

Looking back: The biggest family law story of 2020

It is traditional at this time of year to look back over the previous twelve months and reflect upon what has happened, although many will not wish to look back at the year 2020.

It has, to say the least, been a difficult year. The Covid-19 pandemic and the social-distancing rules that were brought in to combat it have affected all of our lives, in ways that would have been unimaginable just twelve months ago.

Looking back at the last year in family law there are many stories we could tell. However, one surely stands out from all of the others, and it too was one of the effects of the pandemic.

Remote court hearingsremote hearings

For some years prior to this one there was talk of family law hearings being conducted remotely. But it was really little more than that. The technology was still relatively new, and many in the family justice system were reluctant to embrace it.

That all changed when the first lockdown was impose back in March.

In response to the pandemic many courts closed their doors, as conventional in-court hearings became unsafe or impractical.

How could family justice continue? There was only one way: remotely.

Almost overnight the entire family courts service changed its way of working. In-court hearings were almost all replaced by replaced by remote hearings conducted via telephone or internet conferencing, or hybrid hearings, conducted partially in court and partially remotely.

As a result it is now the norm for many parties and lawyers to attend family court hearings at home.

But whilst remote hearings have gone a long way to keep the family justice system operating, they have not been without their problems.


Not without problemsremote court hearing

Obviously, remote hearings rely upon technology. In particular all participants in a hearing conducted via the internet must have the right equipment and software, and a reliable internet connection. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and losing an internet connection in the middle of a court hearing can be a serious matter.

There have also been concerns raised about the fairness of remote hearings. Parties who are represented may have difficulties consulting with their lawyers, and parties who do not have lawyers may find the proceedings hard to follow.

And then there can be the awful situation in which a party alone at home has to deal with a decision of the court that could have extremely serious consequences, for example in relation to their children.

These matters and others are already being given detailed consideration, and new guidance is being formulated.


Here to stay?family law team

The remote hearing genie is well and truly out of the bottle. They have now been tested on a scale that was previously unimaginable and, despite some obvious problems and reservations, they have been found to operate well in many cases.

Remote hearings are surely here to stay.

That is not to say that they will replace in-court hearings. There are many situations where it is clear that a full in-court hearing is more appropriate than a remote or hybrid hearing.

But remote hearings are clearly useful. They are more convenient for many participants, and they represent clear cost and time savings for courts and lawyers alike. They may well therefore continue to be the norm in appropriate situations, for example for use in ‘directions’ hearings, when the court is simply directing how the case should proceed, rather than making a final decision.

This year may very well be a turning-point for the family justice system. As in so many other walks of life, things may never return to the way they were prior to the pandemic.

With that thought we will leave this discussion, and simply wish all who read this a happy and Covid-safe Christmas.

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