As the two year anniversary approaches of when the country was plunged into a national lockdown, a time of panic and uncertainty when most of the world had no choice but to adapt to a new and alien way of working, I want to look at how far the Family Court, family practitioners and most importantly, our clients, have come and how well we have handled this time. It’s also important as we ease out of restrictions and the latest Omicron variant to look to the future, what this holds and where we go from here, in particular focussing on representing clients at Court within Care Proceedings.
It’s fair to say that the Court, solicitors, barristers, support services and clients, in my view, adapted extremely quickly to remote working. The general feedback and certainly my own is that; 1) it’s more efficient; and 2) it’s preferred.
Most of my clients over the last two years have never even seen the inside of a Court building, and the consensus to this is one of relief. The stress of proceedings is often overlooked, but if we strip it back, our clients are often up to their eyeballs in meetings with professionals, having to commit to contact arrangements up to three times per week, with little to no movement in timings and location, engaging in support services, specialist assessments, GP appointments, courses etc. Having to be physically present at Court is just another thing to add to their ever long list, especially when matters are listed on an urgent basis or with little notice.
One client I represent has something she has to do every single day and has said to me that she feels thankful that the routine Court Hearings are still taking place remotely so that she can carry on with her day quickly after it has finished. She told me that the ease of being able to see the Judge in “one-click” was fantastic, she can also see my face when talking about her children (and not my back). She did not feel uptight or anxious about having to take public transport to the Court building and then spend time waiting around in an unfamiliar place, with many people, not knowing when her case would get called in. She also said to me, if she gets upset, she can just turn her camera off but still hear what’s being said about her children. A ‘Win-Win’ situation for her.
For the family practitioner, let’s be honest, looking back pre-COVID what was the reality? A stressful commute, rushing to find parking no matter how much time one allowed for travel, calling clients continuously to find out where they were and whether they were still attending, all being rounded off with a 10am listing for a straight forward Case Management Hearing being pushed back until the afternoon due to the pressures placed on the judiciary with cases being over listed. Sound familiar? It was Russian Roulette as to when any case would get called in.
My memory is that clients would become restless, some even just leaving the Court building if the case was rolled over until after the lunch adjournment, not understanding why their case had been listed so early and then them having to spend all day at Court when the matter was pretty much agreed. Some clients who had booked time off work to attend the in-person Hearing would spend the day just sitting and waiting, losing a day of their precious holiday, with others at risk of missing contact unless you could flag down an usher and ask whether permission could be sought urgently from the Judge for their attendance to be excused.
Remote Hearings have offered flexibility for all involved and I hope they are here to stay. Attendance of clients I find is higher. They can join by telephone if they do not have access to a laptop/tablet/smart phone and better yet, the Court can dial them in so all they need to do is answer the telephone.
If you are a family practitioner, how do you feel? From my perspective, I certainly feel more productive. People are on time to meet remotely and less stressed. Issues are narrowed within an hour during Pre-Hearing discussions, rarely is more time needed, but if it is, it’s spectacularly effective and it’s communicated by email to the Judge in a timely fashion. If things are not agreed, let’s get in and crack on with those submissions or hear the evidence. Court Hearings are focussed and not as drawn out. My attendance note is pretty much finished within 30 minutes of the Hearing, I’ve spoken with my client by Teams, What’s app video or telephone and explained verbally the next steps in the case. Within the next 30 minutes, I have sent written confirmation by email and a summary of the Hearing for their records. The Order is finalised between all parties no later than that evening and sent to the Judge for their approval. In the past, this might have taken days due to other practitioners work commitments or travel getting in the way.
On a personal level, due to us collaboratively working more efficiently and remotely, I’m less tired. I have more energy. A break during the working day is spent walking my pet Dachshund or going for a run, something I would never ever have been able to do pre-Covid. If I want to, I am able to start my working day reading papers calmly with a coffee, instead of rushing out the house and praying for no traffic. I feel more prepared for my clients and for my Court Hearings. That has to count for something – surely.
Moving forward, and following the recent guidance from the President Sir Andrew McFarlane, it is very much hoped that each case will be taken on a ‘case by case’ basis and be subject to the individual Designated Family Judge’s views in relation to their own circuit and region. The President’s guidance from his latest message is “Make Every Hearing Count”. As long as we do that, in my view, it should not matter how this is achieved. Of course, there will be times when the case is too complex and the issues too serious to deal with the matter being listed as fully remote, that being said, I have just completed a 13 day Fact Finding Hearing in which Queen’s Counsel, Junior Counsel, lay witnesses (including parent clients) and professional witnesses attended remotely, save for the parents on the day that they gave their own evidence. It was effective. It was preferred. It worked. It just requires all involved to turn their minds to thinking outside the box and not adopting a standard ‘one size fits all’ approach.
By Rachael Doran