The Family Court exists to settle disputes and make orders in relation to family law. Typically this involves decisions on the care and upbringing of children, local authority intervention to protect children, adoption, matters relating to divorce, financial support of ex-partners and children following relationship breakdowns, and provide protection from domestic violence.
The coronavirus pandemic has fundamentally changed the way they work, with the Court Service affected just like the rest of society. Since lockdown started, few courts have remained open and most Family Court hearings now take place remotely, either by phone or video. It is unlikely that Courts will fully reopen soon and there are fears that a lack of fairness and inclusiveness in remote hearings may have detrimental effects on justice.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division of the High Court, has published a document called “The Road Ahead”, setting out the steps being taken within the Family Justice System to ensure that Courts can still be accessed by all. By early July all Family Courts should be open, albeit with a substantially reduced capacity. With limits on the numbers who can attend in person, remote hearings will continue to be the predominant method for hearing cases. Hybrid hearings, with some parties attending Court in person and others attending remotely, are another option.
It is not in a child’s interest for Family Court cases to be delayed and Sir Andrew McFarlane stresses the need for a can-do attitude to challenges. He sums up his report saying: “I am sure that we will get there – even though the road will undoubtedly be long.”