Many people will have court hearings coming up and will be concerned about how this will be dealt with in light of the government’s Stay at Home rules. Sir Andrew McFarlane, the President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice, released national guidance for the Family Courts on 19 March which can be found here.
The central message of this guidance was ‘Keep Business Going Slowly’, however, this guidance was released before the government implemented the Stay at Home requirement on 23 March. Thankfully Mr Justice MacDonald released additional guidance regarding remote access to the family justice system on 25 March, which can be viewed here.
The default position is that hearings will be taking place remotely, whether this is by telephone or by some other communication platform such as Skype or Zoom. Live court hearings will be limited to exceptional circumstances where they are sufficiently urgent and remote hearings are not possible. These are important measures to ensure the safety of the judges, lawyers and litigants alike.
There is not a prescribed form of remote hearing, as it will depend on the type of hearing, whether there are any witnesses and what is best for the parties. That being said, we imagine the majority of hearings will take place by telephone. The lead party will be responsible for providing the court with the parties’ details, such as their phone number or Skype names no later than 24 hours before the hearing is listed to begin.
Those of you who have already attended court will know that although a hearing may be listed for 10:30am, this does not mean that you will actually begin at this time. One of the more positive results of the change to remote hearings is that the court and the parties will have to abide by the timings listed, which does offer more certainty to litigants and lawyers. However, a more negative result is that each hearing is likely to be longer. This means that there will be less hearings in a day, which unfortunately means that many hearings will be adjourned.
If you have an upcoming hearing, our advice to you will be to remain patient, sympathetic and flexible. You will need to bear in mind that the courts have not yet perfected the use of remote hearings, and there may still be some technical difficulties to iron out. The courts have also got the difficult job of prioritising cases, which means the less urgent cases will be adjourned.
If your case has been adjourned and you are concerned about when it will be relisted for, perhaps you could consider alternative options. The most recent guidance encourages alternative dispute resolution, in order to try to reduce the pressure on the courts and to allow time for the most urgent cases.