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The family courts are going to ‘keep business going safely’

The family court recognises the need to keep matters progressing with plans for hearings to be undertaken remotely where possible.

On 19 March 2020 the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew MacFarlane, issued national guidance for the family court. The family court recognises the need to keep matters progressing. The default position will be that Family Court hearings will be undertaken remotely either via email exchanges between the parties, telephone, court video-link system, Skype for Business app and other appropriate means such as BT MeetMe or FaceTime. This is unless fairness and justice require physical attendance at court. By far the majority of hearings will therefore be able to take place by telephone or other appropriate method. There are already court rules confirming that even hearings requiring oral evidence can be undertaken by telephone.

Hearing dates currently fixed in the court diary will go ahead without the need for attending court (providing that arrangements can be made to conduct them by telephone, or similar method). The guidance lists:

  • all private law children hearings save for complex final hearings as being capable of being conducted in this way and also injunctions relating to domestic abuse or freezing assets as long as the evidence that needs to be heard is limited;
  •  appeals also fall into this category and any other hearings the judge in question deems suitable; and
  • first directions appointments in financial proceedings should be conducted using the accelerated process for financial remedy courts which is a paper-based process without a hearing required. Other financial hearings are to be conducted remotely and e-bundles are to be used rather than hard copy ones.

For the small number of listed cases that cannot be dealt with remotely, these will be adjourned (unless they can safely go ahead at court) and a remote hearing will be organised to determine how best to proceed. Whilst the default position on urgent hearings will be for them to be dealt with remotely, if this is not possible and the urgency is genuine, the court will try to accommodate a face to face hearing.

Whichever method is selected for the remote hearing it is essential that it includes the facility to record the hearing. Arrangements for the hearing should, as with the existing rules relating to telephone hearings, be made by the applicant’s solicitor 24 hours in advance of the hearing time. A practice direction compliant bundle is to be filed electronically by PDF the day before the hearing too. If the applicant is unrepresented but the respondent has a solicitor, the responsibility lies with the respondent’s solicitor. If both parties are representing themselves, the court will make arrangements for the remote hearing and no bundle is required.

The judge or magistrates hearing the case will need to use their best endeavours to ensure that no-one is present listening to the remote hearing who wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed into the physical court room and that no unauthorised recordings of the hearing are made.

This practical guidance relying on existing rules and arrangements familiar to family solicitors is immensely reassuring that the court’s vital work can continue without significant upheaval. If you are worried about a family court hearing, please do not hesitate to contact a member of our national team.

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