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Court Hearings and Coronavirus: What You Need To Know

As a consequence of the current epidemic and the paring back of essential services, a number of hearings in the Court’s diary have been adjourned – essentially, deferred to a later date when resources allow them to be considered. If you already have a hearing listed, or are waiting for a date for a hearing, we take a look at what you need to know in relation to Court hearings and coronavirus.

The Family Courts have commenced remote hearings where possible, across a wide range of financial and children matters, along with some emergency hearings e.g. Non-Molestation Order applications.

To assist court users, Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, issued his National Guidance for the Family Court.  Within it, Si Andrew provides broad guidance on how these “remote” hearings should be conducted, making the following observations.

How do remote Court hearings work?

Remote hearings may be conducted using the following facilities as appropriate to the individual case:

  1. By way of an email exchange between the Court and the parties;
  2. By way of telephone using conference calling facilities;
  3. By way of the Court’s video-link system, if available;
  4. The use of the Skype for Business application installed on judicial laptops;
  5. Any other appropriate means of remote communication, for example, BT MeetMe or FaceTime.

Anecdotally, it appears that the bulk of hearings have been carried out as telephone hearings, reflecting the Court’s uncertainty on the technology it has access to and how to wield it, with concerns about resources that litigants in person in particular may have available. Whilst the Courts are finding their feet, relying on telephones feels like safe ground.

The most recent HMCTS update on the use of video and telephone hearings was issued on 18 March 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic and can be found at here.

Feedback from the Court is that they are receptive to participants in hearings highlighting any technological shortcomings or concerns that may prevent the effectiveness of hearings. However, there are a growing bank of resources from HMCTS and the wider legal fraternity to assist participants in using some of the available technology that may benefit participants. For those unfamiliar with Skype, the Judicial Intranet offers a helpful user guide here.

How does the Court record the hearing?

There remain complications associated with the Court’s obligations to ensure all hearings are recording, with provision available for a transcript to be sourced if required.

Where the hearing takes place with the Judge located in a Court room, the recording will take place in the ordinary manner. If BT Conferencing is used for a telephone hearing, then that system will produce a transcript of the hearing if necessary. Where Skype for Business is used, there is a facility within the software for the digital record of the hearing to be recorded.

Who arranges a remote hearing? What do I have to do?

The responsibility for making arrangements for a remote hearing and for confirming the details of the arrangements for the hearing to the other parties (no later than 24 hours prior to the remote hearing taking place) should be carried out by:

  • the Applicant in a private law case, providing they are represented by a solicitor;
  • the Respondent party, if they are represented and the Applicant is not;
  • the Court will coordinate the remote hearing if neither party has legal representation.

Other issues are perhaps more problematic, including the coordination of electronic Court bundles and ensuring that only parties privy to the proceedings have access to the remote hearing and that those parties do not make their own recordings of the hearing. There do not appear to be any immediate, simple solutions to these issues.

In summary, the epidemic is causing the family justice system to break new ground on the issue of remote hearings without the level of resources and planning it would ordinarily require to manage such a huge undertaking. It is ever more so important for those engaged in Court proceedings to engage with their respective Court at the earliest opportunity to ensure a listed hearing proceeds as effectively as possible.

If you have any concerns or questions about Court hearings and coronavirus, then please do not hesitate to contact us.

Philip is a Resolution member and formed part of the campaign to support no fault divorce proceedings. Philip is also contributor to the legal and national media on family law issues.

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