Remote hearings in the family justice system: rapid consultation – Law Society response

The consultation

We’ve responded to the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory’s (NFJO) rapid consultation on remote and hybrid hearings in the family justice system.

They are continuing their work to support a system-wide understanding of how family justice practices have been shaped by COVID-19 – how approaches have changed, where this has resulted in positive practice innovation and what challenges and difficulties have emerged.

Our view

We reiterate the point made in our response to the NFJO’s initial consultation: that access to justice must be preserved and the rule of law upheld.

As the rate of COVID-19 infections continues to increase across England and Wales and the safety implications connected with conducting face to face hearings remain significant, we still believe proceeding with remote hearings is usually better than delaying them.

However, decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis, weighing the importance and urgency of the issue against the suitability of proceeding remotely. This must take into account the nature of the hearing and any vulnerabilities of the parties.

In usual circumstances, we do not believe that remote hearings would be suitable across the board and the same principle applies in the current pandemic.

Remote hearings, whether via telephone or video, can work well in straightforward cases. These may include simple procedural hearings, directions hearings and case management hearings. However, we have particular concerns regarding the use of remote hearings in more complex cases, especially those involving unrepresented litigants and those involving vulnerable people.

Consideration should be given to the parties’ views on whether the hearings should proceed remotely, and whether they feel that justice can be served in this way for their particular case.

During an emergency situation, it's only right that certain concessions are made in order to allow the wheels of justice to keep turning. This is particularly pertinent since the existing case backlogs in the family justice system have increased.

Next steps

The consultation closed on 30 September.

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