Court Hearings In Family Cases: what is ‘the new normal’?

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The format of court hearings changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The vast majority of court hearings began to be held remotely. This means that they are held via an online video platform or telephone. However, some hearings have continued to take place in person, with the parties and their lawyers attending the court building. Which of these applies may depend on the particular court hearing the case and the view of the judge. The view of the judge may depend on the facts of the case and the issues in dispute. Most hearings continue to take place remotely. However, some courts now hold final hearings in person as a default. A final hearing is the last hearing in proceedings at which the court makes a final decision about the case. The parties may be required to give evidence at a final hearing during which they are asked questions by barristers and the judge.

What happens during a remote family court hearing?

The most common online video platform used by the courts is the Cloud Video Platform or “CVP”. This platform allows participants to join the remote hearing via a link sent by email. During the hearing, the parties will be able to see each other, their lawyers and the judge or magistrates. At the beginning of the hearing, whether by telephone or CVP, the participants will be asked to confirm that they are in a private space and that they are not recording the hearing. Such recording may be contempt of court. Otherwise, remote hearings should operate similarly to in person hearings. The court will hear from each party’s barrister, if they have one, then make any decisions required.

Is it better to attend court in person or remotely?

There are benefits to both in person and remote attendance. The better format will therefore depend on the particular case and the preferences of the parties. One benefit of remote attendance is greater flexibility. Parties can attend remote hearings from any location with sufficient internet access. This may limit the time they need to take off work or secure childcare. It may also feel less intimidating and more accessible. Victims of domestic abuse may prefer this format, in which they do not have to see their abuser in person. In any case, the issues dealt with by the Family Court are sensitive and remote hearings can make discussion of these issues less stressful.

There are also benefits of attendance in person. The increased formality of physical attendance can promote respect for the court. It can also increase the quality of evidence given in questioning as body language and demeanour can be better assessed. Of course, the courts have been required to introduce additional hygiene and social distancing measures to protect those physically attending court.

There will be cases where one or both parties have specific needs which make a compelling argument for one format over the other. This may include an illness or disability which makes travelling to court difficult or increases risk of COVID-19. It may also include a disability such as autism which makes communication more effective in person. It is possible for hearings to operate on a “hybrid” basis, where some participants are in person and others are remote.

In many cases, it will not be possible to choose whether a hearing is in person or remote. However, in some cases, the court will be able and willing to adhere to one or both parties’ preference. A specialist family lawyer will be able to advise you on this process.

Here to Help

If you need advice on any family matter, please get in touch with Tracey Dargan, Partner and Head of Family and Divorce.

Please note the contents of this article are given for information only and must not be relied upon. Legal advice should always be sought in relation to specific circumstances.