HMCTS update on family law during coronavirus

Elaine Richardson
Elaine RichardsonRichardson Family Law
Mother and her two children lying on bed and smiling

This article provides a summary of a presentation by Adam Lennon of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) Development Directorate to the Family Law Committee of the Law Society on 20 May 2020 about HMCTS family law services and the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

HMCTS updates

HMCTS is publishing a weekly coronavirus update. Court users can sign up for this update by email.

Within the weekly update is a summary of family business priorities previously agreed with the President of the Family Division. It is separated into headings including:

  • work that must be done
  • work that will be done
  • work that we will do our best to do
  • digital working

There are separate links under Digital Working to information on topics including divorce for legal professionals, private law C100 child arrangements and the financial remedy by consent.

Processing of applications

Care, supervision and injunction applications are being processed, but HMCTS has reduced capacity due to the impact of the pandemic.

To help speed up the court process for family law act injunctions, HMCTS has implemented some simple changes such as asking applicants to use specific wording which can be automatically picked up on emails to prioritise them. These changes were introduced on 31 May 2020 and aim to deliver a better national process.

One tip for lawyers is to send in orders to the court as Word documents so if granted the order can be simply sealed and emailed out.

C100 applications for child arrangements took a back seat under ‘work that we will do’, rather than ‘work that must be done’. HMCTS received a designated family judge report from all areas. It is getting on top of backlogs and trying to deal with areas of concern.

Many C100 applications come through via the bulk scanning service and online applications, and the increase in digital applications has helped HMCTS continue to process this work remotely.

Most of the main application types in family have a digital channel. This puts family in a good position. For example, HMCTS can move gatekeeping around, depending on judicial availability.

HMCTS has emphasised that the court service wants to see less and less paper.

Divorce

Divorce is listed under ‘work that must be done’ and although it is not a ‘high priority’ area, the digital channel is mostly operating well. Court staff can work from home. Some matters can be done in one week, for example entitlement to decree nisi online.

However, the paper court world is struggling. For example, the divorce centre at Bury St Edmunds was performing better than it had been 12 months ago, but has now been affected by the pandemic and staff absences. HMCTS asks that solicitors use the digital channels wherever possible, as this will provide a better service for them and their clients.

Financial remedy consent orders now take one week digitally to turn around, compared to 20 weeks or more on paper.

However, if the respondent is legally represented, the digital process has to move back to paper. HMCTS’s digital process for this did not work as intended and has had to be switched off. The fix is not expected until the end of summer or early autumn. This is a top priority for HMCTS.

There is a 20% take up of solicitors using the digital platform. Volumes recently tripled to 250 per week. This is set against a yearly average of 1,000 divorce petitions being issued every week by solicitors.

We asked if the respondent to a divorce could act in person but use their solicitors’ address for service. Mr Lennon said that this is possible and happens in some cases.

We suggested that paper copies of acknowledgement of service (AOS) could be made available for use by solicitors in these circumstances. However, see the comments above about the use of paper and the consequent delays.

The courts are stretched and struggling to cope with demand. HMCTS staff are attending to a high volume of telephone calls and emails. Mr Lennon therefore asked people only to contact the court in these ways when they really have to.

Remote hearings

Mr Lennon said that it is good to see everyone working together on arrangements for remote hearings. HMCTS is moving to Cloud Video Platform (CVP) for remote hearings. This uses Kinly video conferencing software and it allows users to join from their chosen video platform. It is essentially a bridging room. CVP is more stable than some other platforms and users can specify their broadband strength.

HMCTS has been offering training, and has published guidance on its website.

Baker LJ has been appointed to be in charge of dealing with the backlog. However, HMCTS cannot lose the ability to have physical hearings and plans are being published imminently with the HMCTS risk assessment.

Judges are looking increasingly at hybrid hearings with some people in court and some accessing the hearing remotely.