The family courts were under huge pressure even before Covid-19, with cases being listed many months in advance and slow responses to communications to the court. The courts’ initial response to Covid-19 in April 2020 was to adjourn hearings where possible to a later date or reschedule them to a remote hearing format. There has since been a great effort by judges, court staff and by lawyers to keep family law cases moving as quickly as possible, whilst contending with the ever-changing pandemic.
Most cases now take place remotely by telephone where the judge still sits in court, but the parties and lawyers are on a telephone conference call. Some of these hearings take place via Zoom. The bundles and applications are filed electronically and, for now, replace the level arch files of paper that used to be sent to the court before any hearing.
Applications for a Child Arrangement Order - determining how much time a child spends with a parent or where they live and other specific issues - are still being dealt with, albeit via remote hearing. If there are complex issues which require a longer time estimate for the hearing, then there may be some delays in listing a remote hearing.
Divorce and financial remedy applications are also still being processed by the court, however there are delays in the courts listing hearing dates due to the backlog that already existed pre-Covid and the backlog has now unfortunately worsened due to the adjourning and re-listing of many hearings post-Covid.
Clients who wish to avoid the lengthy court delays should consider alternative ways to resolve their dispute such as mediation, where a neutral third party assists the parties to work towards a negotiated settlement. There is also arbitration, where the parties appoint an arbitrator who will make a decision that will be final and binding between the parties on financial issues, property disputes or some child-related issues.
Private Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) hearings should also be considered to resolve the financial issues arising from a marriage. Private FDRs follow the same procedure as an FDR in a court and the Judge will usually be a specialist barrister jointly appointed by the parties. As private FDRs can be arranged at the parties’ convenience, they are far quicker and more flexible than waiting for an FDR through the court system.
In terms of the courts opening their doors to face-to-face hearings again across all areas, HM Courts & Tribunals Service is developing a ‘limited pilot scheme’ to test court users for Covid-19. This will mostly apply to criminal hearings for now and, according to the Criminal Bar Association, testing equipment from the Department for Health and Social Care will arrive at selected court sites shortly to provide lateral flow tests for all court users.
The length of the pilot is currently unclear and, with the UK still being in the grips of lockdown, it may be many months before we see a transition back to face-to-face hearings in family law.
If you would like to discuss any of the above issues or any other family matter please do not hesitate to contact Melissa Gire by email: email@example.com or by phone on: 01892 515022.
This blog is not intended as legal advice that can be relied upon and CooperBurnett does not accept any responsibility for the accuracy of its contents.