Since the prohibition placed on public gatherings on March 23, the family courts have begun to operate on a remote basis. Unless there is a good reason not to do so, all hearings will now take place via video conference or telephone, while document and information exchange is undertaken via email. But this approach cannot come “at the expense of a fair and just process”, Family Division President Sir Andrew McFarlane has stressed
Writing last month, Sir Andrew McFarlane explained that, despite the difficulties posed by operating a system remotely that was designed for face-to-face contact:
“…There is a strong public interest in the Family Justice System continuing to function as normally as possible despite the present pandemic. At the same time, in accordance with government guidance, there is a need for all reasonable and sensible precautions to be taken to prevent infection and, in particular, to avoid non-essential personal contact.”
Predictably there have been appeals against decisions made to proceed with hearings remotely. The Court of Appeal has made clear (in cases relating to children) that
- The decision whether to conduct a remote hearing, and the means by which each individual case may be heard, are a matter for the judge or magistrate who is to conduct the hearing. It is a case management decision over which the first instance court will have a wide discretion, based on the ordinary principles of fairness, justice and the need to promote the welfare of the subject child or children. An appeal is only likely to succeed where a particular decision falls outside the range of reasonable ways of proceeding that were open to the court and is, therefore, held to be wrong.
- Guidance or indications issued by the senior judiciary as to those cases which might, or might not, be suitable for a remote hearing are no more than that, namely guidance or illustrations aimed at supporting the judge or magistrates in deciding whether or not to conduct a remote hearing in a particular case.
- The temporary nature of any guidance, indications or even court decisions on the issue of remote hearings should always be remembered. This will become all the more apparent once the present restrictions on movement start to be gradually relaxed. From week to week the experience of the courts and the profession is developing, so that what might, or might not, have been considered appropriate at one time may come to be seen as inappropriate at a later date, or vice versa. For example, it is the common experience of many judges that remote hearings take longer to set up and undertake than normal face-to-face hearings; consequently, courts are now listing fewer cases each day than was the case some weeks ago. On the other hand, some court buildings remain fully open and have been set up for safe, socially isolated, hearings and it may now be possible to consider that a case may be heard safely in those courts when that was not the case in the early days of ‘lockdown’.
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