Remote Working and Hearings – The New Normal

A view from my side of the desk

It was certainly heartening to hear the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane talk recently about the challenges to Family Court advocates, practitioners and the courts themselves in this new normal of remote hearings since the covid pandemic started.

There have really been some challenges presented by the variety of different platforms for remote hearings, the sound and video quality variables and inconsistencies- which certainly in the initial months after lockdown made even hearing or seeing the court and other parties extremely difficult (and sometimes impossible !) and meant that telephone dialling into the hearing needed to be used as an alternative to any video platform. These issues still arise from time to time and the variables of internet connections and geographical locations have also had an impact.

Add to that some amusing interludes of video freezing, submissions conducted accidentally on mute and,( my favourite), my counsel having to excuse herself mid- hearing to run into the garden to stop her dog attacking a fox and having to separate the two and then return to the hearing!!

I don’t think I am alone in saying that I had never heard of -let alone used -some of the platforms before lockdown!

Still, with sudden change, I and my colleagues nationwide have had to quickly develop knowledge and acquire IT skills to ensure that our hearings continued- which they definitely did. All hail IT departments everywhere!

The Family Division was extremely determined to remain open in my specialist practice of public law care proceedings and other areas of protection and urgent cases. The Ministry of Justice very quickly rolled out a new platform for the course called CVP.

I was able to obtain domestic abuse injunctions, engage in contested care hearings and, back in May, was amongst one of the first cases to go back into court face-to-face with huge safeguards and complete risk assessments for a contested in-person final hearing in London with clients giving in-person oral evidence before the Judge over 5 days.

In cases where parents face losing their children, nothing else will do but an in-person hearing and the court confidently embraced this vital principle and reallocated spaces in the court and conference rooms to enable clients and lawyers to be safe and distance from each other. Court resources have been stretched to the limit.

I’ve been proud to see the speed and willingness of our clients, solicitors and other practitioners/ colleagues, Judges, court staff and our invaluable IT departments to come up with solutions to enable the courts to continue to dispense justice to protect our clients from whatever harms they face. It has certainly been rewarding looking back to see the speed and rate of change.

I do not deny that it has been exhausting emotionally and mentally. Somehow not being in court physically -as I was very regularly each week prior to lockdown -has been difficult. It has not got easier.

Not seeing and interacting physically with one’s clients and colleagues in the office is hard. The work we do is extremely draining and the support of colleagues during the chat that we have in the office is something that I didn’t previously realise was providing ongoing support day to day.

Whilst, firms valiantly resurrected these support networks through Zoom (other platforms are available!) it was never quite the same.

I think for me it is those little conversations with colleagues, opponents, court staff and clients in and around court corridors and waiting areas and of course in the office where small concerns can be quickly resolved through a very quick chat that Covid has taken from us.

In terms of this now newish remote court advocacy, I feel that perhaps the loss of the ability to pick up on essential nuances that would be seen and felt in face to face hearings; like physical cues, changes in the atmosphere in court during a line of questioning or cross-examination and the flow of speech are very different.

For our clients, creativity and adaptability in terms of sometimes having to force other parties to ensure that proper thought, consideration and planning is given to the IT and other support needs of our clients have been essential; so that they can fairly and properly engage in these remote hearings that so affect their lives and families. I note that I have, at times, had to be quite forthright on my clients’ behalf to ensure that they are given the equipment that they are lacking in order to fairly take part in proceedings and to dispel assumptions that may be made about clients’ IT skills and the availability of equipment. This has in one case meant that I insisted that the local authority provide laptops and provide money to pay for internet connection for my client.

Our clients are at the centre of these changes. The work that we do is extremely stressful in normal circumstances and the stress levels are noticeably higher for clients at this time; when they cannot see their solicitors as easily as they used to.

All of these changes have meant that a great deal of additional stress has been caused to our clients which we as solicitors try to ameliorate as well.

These are interesting times; very tiring times but oh, so very rewarding.

GoodLaw Solicitors are committed to proactive adaptable working and always putting our client’s first. Irrespective of the ongoing impact of this pandemic, our lawyers will always be contactable and ensure cases are prioritised. If you require assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us on 01273 956270 or family@goodlawsolicitors.co.uk

Further information about McFarlane’s recent comments can be found here; https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/mcfarlane-family-court-backlogs-cut-but-remote-working-saps-morale/5106022.article

Denise Hoilette