The Family Court FAQs – What is happening during the Coronavirus pandemic?
Last Updated: 11:30, 21 April 2020
Clients have been asking what will happen to either a case which is currently in the court system or to a matter where they might want to issue court proceedings, are they able to do so?
Over the past weeks, family lawyers have received various notes from the courts. On 3rd April 2020, Mr Justice MacDonald published a guidance on the Remote Family Justice System, and on 17 April 2020 HM Courts and Tribunals Service issued a statement about the arrangements they have put in place to ensure that applications for child arrangements can continue during the Coronavirus pandemic.
Are the courts open?
The courts are now categorised as ‘open’ (or prioritised), staffed or suspended.
Open courts will be physically open so judges, professionals and the public can enter them for certain urgent cases to be dealt with.
Staffed courts will be attended by judges and court staff but are not open to the public. The judges at the staffed courts will be able to conduct remote hearings.
Suspended courts have no staff or judges. This means the court building is closed.
What if my case is urgent?
What is urgent is decided by the nature of the case and the type of court order, and in what time frame this is needed. There are only a few cases that fall in to this category, and we can advise on this aspect. As an example, the court will still be requiring attendance of parties in case where an Injunction is applied for.
Will my current case be dealt with if I have a hearing already listed?
At the moment the judges are making decisions about how to manage cases on a day to day basis. This means there is uncertainty. In our cases we are not being contacted by the court until a day or so before the hearing. Whether the hearing already listed can go ahead remotely will depend on the type of case it is and what the hearing is listed for. All the court service can say is that they do their best but it is highly likely that a significant number of cases will have to be adjourned because of their complexity and logistical issues at the court.
What are remote hearings?
Family cases are usually dealt with by parties and their legal representatives (if they have one) attending court. Discussions take place at court and hearings involve all parties going to see the judge face to face.
Remote hearings are largely unknown territory in family cases. The courts have had to try and adapt quickly so they can still deal with cases. Remote means the cases will mainly be dealt with by telephone though it may be possible for some to be heard with through technology such as Skype. To date the majority of the remote hearings have been interim hearings or directions appointments only.
Can I start a new court case?
In most cases we will be able to send the papers to the court to issue the application. What happens thereafter is at the moment again uncertain. The court service have said they will process the papers but at present new matters will not be given a court hearing date. This means that there will be even more delay than usual and a further backlog to add to the backlog that already exists. In some courts, even before the current crisis, there was a delay three months between the issue of the papers and the court hearing date.
We are told that HMCTS are working hard to ensure better access to remote hearings but they are short on technology and staff.
What if I am involved in a remote hearing?
Lawyers are told to conduct the case as if it they are appearing before the judge in person. All reasonable steps must be taken by those involved in the call to preserve confidentiality. Separate times should be set aside for lawyers to be able to able to speak to their clients to take instructions during the course of the hearing.
If the hearing is by video call, parties should have their microphones muted unless addressing the judge, and ensure they do not move away from the screen without permission. The usual restrictions with regard to eating and drinking apply.
Some concerns have been raised about children being present or able to hear the hearings when they are taking place in the home through remote access. Where it is simply not possible to isolate children then consideration will have to be given to adjourn the hearing.
What is the court process for applying for child arrangements?
Online application service on GOV.UK – Parents and legal representatives have been asked, wherever possible, to use the online child applications service to avoid delay. Applications made using the online service will be sent to a court in the area where your child or children live.
Urgent applications – The online service should not be used, however, if a hearing is needed within the next three days or if there are serious safety concerns. Instead a local court must be contacted directly.
Paper applications – In cases where it is not possible to use the online service, and there are no serious safety concerns or a need for an urgent hearing, paper applications can be made. These are to be sent to a central address, but will be dealt with by a court in the area where your child or children live.
We are here to provide help and support to guide you through this process if needed. We can carry out face-to-face consultations with you using the usual platforms available for video calls.
If you would like to talk through the consequences for your business, please email us and one of our team will get in touch.
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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