Mar 15, 2021 by Foresight

The Effects of Covid-19 on Family Courts

Covid-19 effects on family court proceedings have impacted hard so it’s no particular surprise to learn that family courts have been subject to some significant changes that reflect the current times. In direct response to the pandemic, existing protocols, procedures, and practices have been revised accordingly to ensure that all parties' health is protected. 

Despite the general optimism emerging as a result of lockdown enforcements and the successes of the vaccination programme rollout, court proceedings won’t be returning to anything near normal anytime soon. Not when learning that almost 100 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in court settings had been reported in less than a month.  

The courts minister, Chris Philp has just published figures that report that 82 staff contracted the disease between the 26th of January and the 19th of February.

On which note, the health and safety of our expert witnesses remain a top priority. Which is why Foresight ensures all experts are aware of the guidelines they must follow when attending family courts in person going forward, in terms of social distancing and face coverings. While our experts are also equipped with the interactive tools and platforms required to perform their role in a remote-working environment in the interim.

Family Courts Look to Plot Road Map Out of Virus Restrictions 

With this in mind, and with the now familiar, ‘road maps’ being very much in the headline’s family courts will need to set out a clear route out of lockdown measures, in preparation of receiving the governmental green light in the coming months. 

Among the various untried ideas being discussed to whittle down the volume of cases, there’s talk of so-called ‘hybrid’ cases being facilitated. This eventuality would see certain family members attending court hearings in person, while others would actively participate via online platforms.

What Other Ways Might the Family Court Landscape Change, Post-Lockdown

As of the outbreak of Covid-19 most hearings set to take place in family court settings were adjourned to a later date. Other cases were heard via telephone and video platforms, with courts having to quickly adapt to new technology to maintain some form of relative status quo. 

Since the original lockdown was lifted last summer, many family courts reopened with a variety of social distancing measures in place. While the above-mentioned virtual methods continued to play a vital role in the ongoing process. This quickly became the ‘new normal’ for family court proceedings once the current lockdown was established at the onset of winter 2020, following the inevitable closure of courts again. 

Private Hearings Advised as Alternative Dispute Resolution Method

The volume of caseloads to catch up with in a post-lockdown landscape won’t happen overnight. Nor will they be unscathed by what’s recently played out. It’s predicted that there’s likely to be a notable reduction in the amount of time courts can afford individual hearings going forward. While witness evidence might also be negatively impacted. 

To counter these forecast issues, experts in family court proceedings suggest other forms of dispute resolution methods, including private hearings. Where the roles of judge, mediator or arbitrator, could realistically be assumed by highly qualified solicitors. 

The need to plot workable ways out of this backlog of family court cases as restrictions begin to ease is a pressing one, providing challenges for the key decision makers. Yet affecting the necessary changes to resolve this is paramount. 

Leading Judiciary Figure Presents His Vision of How Covid-19 Will Impact Family Courts in 2021 and Beyond

Leading judge, President of the Family Division and Chair of the Family Justice Council, Sir Andrew McFarlane has just published a working document which outlines what he believes is the framework which needs to be implemented at this juncture. 

McFarlane’s findings foretold of current restraints in family court procedures were likely to endure for many months ahead and confirmed that work volumes in the system were high. He also cited how family courts were struggling with workloads pre-Covid-19, and in light of that how steps were about to be set in motion to change professional cultures and working practices. 

Acknowledging that face-to-face hearings would resume when safe to do so, it was also recognised that facilities to accommodate new ways of working would be limited. Hence the likelihood that a large percentage of family court hearings would continue to be conducted remotely. McFarlane concluded that, ‘if the family court is to have any chance of delivering on the needs of children or adults who need protection from abuse, or of their families for a timely determination of applications, there will need to be a very radical reduction in the amount of time that the court affords to each hearing.’

You can read the full article here.


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