Virtual Family Hearings: Tips for Attending a Hearing from Home
In recent weeks and in accordance with the President of the Family Division’s Guidelines (which I wrote about in my previous blog “Virtually” Business as Usual ) the majority of family hearings which are deemed to be appropriate for remote hearings are proceeding, albeit their structure is somewhat different. Here is a summary about how virtual family hearings are being heard in Hertfordshire and some tips for to prepare yourself for them.
FHDRAs: First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointments
FHDRAs which are the first hearing in children cases, continue to be heard in Hertfordshire mostly by way of a telephone call by BTMeetMe. The court will dial in all the parties and ask them to confirm they are in a private space and cannot be overheard and will not record the proceedings. The CAFCASS Officer (Children and Family Court Services representative) will also be dialled into the call and if the court and parties have not been provided with a copy of the Safeguarding Letter then this will be summarised at the start of the hearing and sent to the parties by email during the hearing.
Most lawyers are arranging a video conference with their clients ahead of the hearing to make sure you understand the process and what is being said at the hearing. It is important to have a line of communication open between you and your lawyer during the hearing so that you can make them aware of your position on what is being said.
At present there are no Magistrates courts sitting in Hertfordshire but Legal Advisors (who usually direct the Magistrates as to the law) are making directions and sending orders to be approved. The Legal Advisors are hearing cases on their own for now. If matters remain in dispute, the case will be re-listed for a DRA (Dispute Resolution Appointment). Some cases where there is an urgent issue about contact, such as where one parent has stopped contact due to perceived risk, will be sent urgently to a District of Circuit Judge for an interim hearing.
DRAs: Dispute Resolution Appointments
The second hearing in children matters where parties are urged to reach agreement when considering the outcome of any welfare report conducted by CAFCASS are largely going ahead unless there is a significant dispute or alleged welfare concerns. Many are being referred to Circuit Judges, and others where the court does not have the time to deal with numerous issues in complex cases, are simply being adjourned.
FDAs: First Direction Appointments
The first hearing in financial applications is now largely being dealt with on paper with parties’ lawyers writing into the court their positions on matters such as questionnaires, and any interim orders. Some hearings are going ahead by telephone.
Final Hearings: Children and Finances
At present the majority of children final hearings in Hertfordshire are being adjourned. The court has a duty to consider on a case by case basis how and whether each hearing can proceed depending on the evidence it needs to hear. You will need to consider if you are going to be giving evidence how it will feel to do so in your home and to make sure you have a safe and quiet place to do so. If the hearing does go ahead it will likely go ahead by video by either Teams or Skype for Business. Once the App is downloaded for free, both these applications will be easily accessible by a link sent to you by your solicitor and do not require you to set up an account.
Top tips for video and telephone hearings:
- Try out the software in advance to check you can see and hear
- Make sure all Alexa and Google home devices are unplugged
- Make sure you are in a quiet and private place
- Use a headset / headphones if possible
- Do not make any personal recordings but keep a note pad with you
- Have the email of your lawyer open if you need to send them messages during the hearing
- Have a glass of water and a comfortable place to sit
- Make sure you say if you are unable to hear at any point
With matters now being largely dealt with electronically it is important to ensure all preparation is done well ahead of time so that everyone is working from the same papers and knows how to access the calls. Finally, given many cases are being delayed as the court comes to terms with the difficulties of working virtually, family law has shifted its focus to alternate dispute resolution methods such as arbitration and mediation. It is plain that whilst delays mount in the court setting and with no clear date for when Magistrates will be returning to hear cases, parties need to think carefully about whether the court process is the right path for them.
Please note the contents of this blog are given for information only and must not be relied upon. Legal advice should always be sought in relation to specific circumstances.