Are remote family courts really horribly cruel?

Are remote family courts really horribly cruel? Yesterday (4 June 2020), the BBC reported that remote hearing for family courts are ‘horribly cruel’.  

Since lockdown began, family hearings have been taking place remotely either via telephone or video link. In fact, from 23 March to 6 April, audio hearings across all courts and tribunals in England and Wales increased by more than 500%, and video hearings by 340%. (Nuffield Family Justice Observatory*)

The article revealed some incidents that cause great concern including an order to take a newborn baby into care made over the telephone and a victim being left on the same line along with the perpetrator but this is not every experience. 

My experience of remote family court hearings has been extremely positive. At each hearing, the question has been asked as to whether those involved are comfortable attending remotely to which all of my clients have agreed.

Remote hearings have enabled progress in my client’s cases to take place despite what feels like a freeze on most people’s lives.  Just yesterday I completed my second private adoption during lockdown which brought great joy to both families.  

I noticed in an article from CNN that suggested adopters are not getting that ‘experience’ of being in court with the Judge and having a photograph taken.  

However, my experience is this has been an unimportant consideration of my clients and they have been thrilled to obtain their final adoption order, whether it was made physically in a courtroom, via telephone or video link the outcome was still the same.     

I appreciate that this will not be everyone’s experience, particularly when they are unrepresented or when the case has been in respect of removal of a child from a parent.  

These cases require extra sensitivity and there is no replacement for face to face support.  

In my view, parties should continue to be asked if they are willing for their case to proceed remotely to avoid any delay. If either person feels uncomfortable the court should consider very carefully whether a remote hearing would be appropriate or the matter should be delayed or special measures put in place so that it can take place in court.

For many of my clients remoting into a hearing has not only avoided travel, additional expense and waiting around it has allowed them to continue to work around the hearing time without too much disruption to their day.  

It will be interesting to see if the court will consider some hearings in the future to continue this way as the lockdown continues to ease. 

Sarah Jane Lenihan, Partner at Stowe Family Office in London Victoria. 

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