DATED 17 JUNE 2020
Sir Andrew McFarlane, the president of the family division has drawn up a roadmap for what the family courts will look like over the next few months. In the new framework entitled ‘The Road Ahead’ Sir Andrew warns that the normal working environment is unlikely to return until next spring.
He said: ‘In the early weeks of the Covid-19 crisis, most contested fact-finding or final welfare hearings were adjourned (unless they could proceed, for example, with minimal oral evidence). It was no doubt hoped by many that normal working would resume relatively soon and the delay in resolving the contested issues would not be great. It now seems sensible to assume that social distancing restrictions will remain in place for many months and that it is unlikely that anything approaching a return to the normal court working environment will be achieved before the end of 2020 or even the spring of 2021.’
Setting out his framework for the next six months, Sir Andrew acknowledged that the task ahead for the Family Courts is daunting, and praised the ‘can do’ approach that staff had taken during the COVID-19 crisis which he was confident would continue. By early July he expects all the family court buildings to be open to the public, although social distancing will reduce capacity and a great deal of the day to day work will have to be carried out remotely.
Sarah Finnis, Head of Family Law at Girlings said: ‘We have adapted to the new way of working and all of the team have been involved in court hearings held over recent weeks via telephone. By early July family courts should hopefully be open in some form albeit with social distancing in place.’
The Family Court had been struggling with its workload prior to the COVID-19 crisis and Sir Andrew added that there would need to be a ‘very radical reduction’ in the amount of time courts could afford to each hearing. This would mean that the issues heard would be limited to those which were deemed necessary to complete the case, and the length of oral evidence and submissions would need to be reduced.
The Courts should inform parties at least three days before the hearing as to the remote platform that will be used. The cloud video platform is currently being introduced to family court centres. Judges can also use Microsoft Teams. Zoom is not currently supported by the judiciary or HMCTS. Another option would be to consider lay parties taking part in a hearing in a solicitor’s office or barrister’s chambers.
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