Divorce during COVID-19 lockdown: As the lockdown continues, how are family lawyers and the courts adapting to the new routine brought in by COVID-19. Julian Hawkhead, Senior Partner at Stowe Family Law joins us on the blog.
We are living in strange and challenging times. As I write this, I am sat looking out at the garden on a sunny spring day watching my neighbours go about their own business respectfully keeping their social distance.
It’s quite an idyllic scene but of course, we know it belies what is an extremely difficult time in world history. It’s a time like no other and you can’t escape new statistics or conversations about COVID-19 / the Coronavirus.
The requirement to stay at home, to only leave your house for essential reasons has in many respects brought daily life to a stop. Well, maybe not a complete stop but certainly the pause button has been pressed.
Relationships and divorce during COVID-19 lockdown
Families now live together nearly 24/7 with nowhere else to go. Many of the people I talk to and the media are forecasting a big boom in divorce numbers when restrictions on movement are eventually lifted.
If that is the case then I hope it is only because those relationships were sadly already beyond repair and that this current predicament and enforced 24-hour a day cohabitation has not been the cause for it.
This really is a time for people to be kind and patient with each other. However it easy to see how relationships in households around the country will become fraught when it’s hard to ‘find space’ and you’re living under a whole range of different pressures and worries.
However, as Benjamin Franklin said, “Out of adversity comes opportunity”. Already we have found different ways to work. Indeed I find that I am having even more social interactions than before albeit through video conferencing.
New ways of communicating
I have friends I have not spoken with for several months and this forced lockdown has brought us together albeit virtually not physically.
Being a firm with 22 offices, it is not easy to bring people together but in fact, technology and our ability to work remotely has meant that we are able to communicate as teams or with individuals whenever we want and what might have been a telephone call before is more likely to be a video call as we crave visual as well as audio communication.
I do believe that we will become an even stronger team coming out of this and hopefully in the wider world relationships will strengthen as we faced adversity together.
Family courts during COVID-19 lockdown
We knew before this crisis that the courts were heading towards meltdown, that online systems and workflows were being created to help alleviate the burden on the system driven through cutbacks.
As this crisis has unfolded, we have seen that some courts are better prepared for an online world than others. One colleague in London successfully completed a 3-day trial through Skype. Other courts have resorted to using telephones but have still functioned.
The recent guidance issues permitted the use of FaceTime, often the preserve of social interactions to facilitate video conferencing. Essentially it has been all hands to the pump and whatever works will do. It has been a strong testimony to the wish of all stakeholders in the Family Justice system trying to play their part to help it to continue to function.
The wheels of justice do not need to fall off. I have seen countless lawyers on various social media platforms saying how busy they are helping people experiencing problems and we are fortunate to live in a time when we are spoilt for choice for different ways to communicate.
My colleagues are engaging with clients old and new every day, now working from their home environments whilst this lockdown is in place and able to fully function as advisers, negotiators and advocates.
However, we also know there is a better way. We know that final hearings rarely produce the best outcomes for families, sure there may be a party who perceives they have “won” but what long term benefit does that produce in the long run other than some kudos.
A good lawyer will seek a negotiated settlement wherever possible and the vast majority of cases are resolved by one party’s lawyer speaking to the other party’s lawyer and reaching an agreement.
In some circumstances, a more formal process is required to help the parties reach a settlement. And so it is that the current crisis has led to lawyers promoting their alternatives whether it is arbitration, private dispute resolution hearings or mediation.
Arbitration is in many ways akin to court proceedings, albeit more efficient in getting decisions from specialist lawyers with hearings conducted in private but there is still strong adversarial learning in this process. These can be conducted via video link and many of the leading barrister’s chambers are offering this service and will have all the technology and equipment to ensure this operates smoothly.
Private dispute resolution hearings
Private dispute resolution hearings, primarily conducted in financial proceedings are less adversarial in the sense that the ‘Judge’ aka your privately appointed independent lawyer, will try to conduct the process in a more conciliatory less contentious way and give indications that are reasoned, not rushed and balanced to encourage settlements and avoid contested expensive trials.
As with arbitration, this is something that can be readily conducted online as well and there are video conference platforms that enable you to have to several different “rooms” in which you can hold conversations with different audiences.
Mediation and collaborative law
The other opportunity that arises is in relation to the other forms of dispute resolution namely mediation and collaborative family law. Both work well through direct dialogue whether it is a mediator guiding two parties through the mediation process or the four parties in the collaborative process.
This is where I think a great opportunity exists. If we can conduct video conference meetings with 20+ participants across the whole country, it is surely easy to hold virtual meetings where 3 or 4 people engage with each other.
Now, I appreciate there are those who would say that an online meeting is never as good as direct human contact to pick up all the nuances of body language, that there is the risk of other parties being in the room or the meeting being recorded without the other parties being aware.
However, ground rules can be put in place to resolve these issues and as for body language, as you can usually see most of the top half of a person, do you really need to see what they are doing with their feet? Indeed you can be safe in the knowledge that nobody is kicking somebody else under the table and communication has to be even more transparent.
Greater use of technology
I would like to see greater use being made of technology, in fact, it’s an ambition of this firm to continually find innovative ways to serve our clients, so this seems to me to be a perfect opportunity to find different but potentially better ways to resolve our differences.
One thing we should all learn from this crisis is that life can sadly be too short and we do not know what awaits us around the corner. For people facing not only this crisis but also the crisis of a relationship breakdown, let’s explore different ways to help you move on.
Get in touch
If you would like any advice on divorce during COVID-19 lockdown or other family law issues please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here.
At this current time (26 March 2020), we can no longer offer a face-to-face service at our offices however appointments can be carried out via phone, email and video conferencing.