How technology will likely impact the future of the Family Court System – Part 1

When the Covid-19 lockdown was announced on 23rd March 2020, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett made it clear that since the courts provide “a vital public service”, they, therefore, had an obligation to continue operating.

Since all court buildings have been closed to the public, a significant shift has occurred, resulting in the vast majority of persons working within the Family Court system having to embrace modern technology and conduct business remotely; either via telephone, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Skype.

It is now widely acknowledged by barristers, solicitors, the Judiciary and the media that the Family Courts have adapted remarkably well to the COVID-19 lockdown and their use of modern technology.

This shift has ensured that the Family Courts in England and Wales have continued to operate where others have closed. For example, in France, it is reported that the majority of hearings have been cancelled, often without parties receiving a future hearing date. This will likely result in a huge backlog when quarantine is lifted from 22nd June 2020 (the anticipated date at the time of publication). Likewise in Hong Kong, practitioners have reported that their overworked Family Court has accrued an enormous backlog and has, to date, experienced a disappointing response to the use of technology.

However, in the UK – as within countries such as Australia which is also conducting remote hearings – there has been a seismic change in how the Family Courts are operating; and remote hearings are not limited to urgent cases but are being applied, as far as possible, to all court proceedings.

Yet not everyone is enamoured by this new way of working. There have been suggestions that litigants have had issues dealing with and accessing technology; as well as concerns that clients are unable to have the usual discussion they might have done with their representatives outside of the courtroom door.

Some advocates have found the intensity of dealing with electronic bundles somewhat tiring and cumbersome; whilst those reluctant to embrace the new technology feel that certain types of hearings, in the interests of justice, still require parties to be physically present.

Lord Chief Justice Burnett made indicated that the court system will never again operate as it did before the coronavirus pandemic. He stated that Judges and practitioners had found the use of remote hearings just as successful and convenient and pointed out that 80% of family and civil hearings had been able to proceed.

Additionally, Mr Justice McDonald, Deputy Head of International Family Justice for England and Wales made comments on a similar vein during a family law webinar on 21st May.

Discussions are also taking place to gradually move some hearings to a hybrid hearing, which may potentially involve the Judge and lawyers being present in Court, but witnesses giving evidence via a cloud-based system.

Whatever the final outcome is, the positive aftermath of COVID-19 is that the Family Court system can indeed operate using modern technology. This will inevitably mean that some family hearings are able to take place in the future by Zoom or Skype, saving the client costs and the practitioners time. Both of which can only be a good thing.

If you have a hearing scheduled in the Family Court relating to either children or divorce and finances or if there is any aspect of Family Court proceedings that you need to discuss, please do not hesitate to contact us to find out how we can help you.

⋅ Carole Nettleton
Tel: 07958 028069

⋅ Nicholas Clough
Tel: 07538 385956

Our expert family solicitors have over 50 years of combined, hands-on experience and will ensure that your case is dealt with in a prompt, efficient and cost-effective manner.

Our office building remains closed for everyone’s safety, but we are all working, every day, and we can correspond with you by email and discuss your situation by phone, Skype, Facetime or Zoom – whichever suits you best.