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Remote hearings in the Family Court

View profile for John Boon
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The prospect of physically attending Court and appearing before a Judge or Lay Magistrates for parties involved in Family Court proceedings, whether that be for dealing with children disputes or financial proceedings, can be extremely daunting, particularly for those who are representing themselves as ‘litigants in person’, whether that is through choice or financial constraints.  

With the evolution of technology and in response to unprecedented situations like the COVID-19 pandemic, and in order to reduce the burden on an increasingly strained Court system, certain hearings are now routinely conducted on a remote or virtual basis using the Court’s own Cloud Video Platform (CVP).

How Do CVP hearings Work in the Family Court?
The process for CVP hearings in the Family Court generally involves the following steps:

  1. Notification and Preparation: The parties involved in the hearing, or, if represented, their solicitors, will receive a Notice of Hearing from the court indicating whether the hearing will be conducted remotely, or in person.  If the hearing is to be conducted remotely, then the notice will include instructions on accessing the platform, testing the technology, and submitting any necessary documents or evidence prior to the hearing.
  2. Accessing the CVP link: The parties and their legal advisers will be invited by the Court to submit e-mail and telephone details in advance of the hearing.  Either on the day of the hearing or the days leading up to it, the participants will be provided by the Court with a secure link to access the CVP, together with further instructions as to how to access the CVP on the day of the hearing.   It is crucial for all participants to ensure that they have a stable internet connection and a device with a working camera and microphone.
  3. Conducting the Hearing: Just like in-person hearings, the Judge or Lay Magistrates presiding over the hearing will give the parties or their legal representatives the opportunity to present their case, submit evidence, and respond to questions.
  4. Confidentiality and Security: The Family Court ensures that CVP hearings are secure and that confidentiality is maintained. Participants required to adhere to guidelines that prohibit recording the proceedings and ensure that they are in a private, quiet location during the hearing.

What hearings are likely to be conducted remotely?
Not all hearings in the Family Court are conducted remotely.  When sending out a Notice of Hearing, the Court will usually specify whether that hearing is to take place remotely or in person.  If it is unclear from the Notice of Hearing whether or not the hearing is to take place remotely, it would be advisable to contact the Court well in advance to clarify the position. 

As a general rule of thumb, many case management or procedural hearings, such as a First Directions Appointment in Financial Remedy proceedings, take place remotely, whereas more substantive hearings where the parties are likely to be required to give evidence, tend to take place in person.

The benefits of CVP hearings
CVP hearings offer several advantages, including:

  • Accessibility: They allow parties to participate in hearings from anywhere, reducing the need for travel and making it easier for individuals with health issues or caregiving responsibilities to attend.
  • Efficiency: Remote hearings can be listed more efficiently than in-person ones, helping to reduce backlog and delays in the Family Court system.  Traditionally multiple in-person hearings taking place in the Family Court would be listed in a ‘block’, meaning that parties and their legal representatives could be kept waiting for significant periods of time waiting for their case to be dealt with.  With CVP hearings, cases are given a specific timeslot, and, usually, that timeslot is strictly adhered to.
  • Safety: During times of public health concerns, CVP hearings minimised the risk of exposure to illnesses.  CVP hearings also offer the possibility of protecting potentially vulnerable litigants, such as in cases involving allegations of domestic abuse.

There are, however, some potential disadvantages and issues which arise as a result of hearings being dealt with remotely:-

  • Technology: Although the Court’s CVP has proven to be remarkably robust, given the speed at which it had to be introduced in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, no technology is perfect, and hearings can often be disrupted by technical issues, such as feedback and stuttering. 
  • Participation:  Many participants in remote hearings may only have a Smartphone which has both a camera and microphone which can make participating in the hearing more difficult for those individuals and potentially lead to issues where participants, particularly those acting in person, struggle to understand what is happening.    Research undertaken by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory found that almost half of parents involved in hearings held remotely in Children Act proceedings had not understood what had taken place during the hearing.  This is a very concerning finding. 
  • Informality:  Although Judges and Court staff do stress at the outset of a remote hearing that such a hearing has the same force and effect as one conducted in person, it has been questioned whether in Family proceedings, where matters are often emotive, it is appropriate to conduct hearings remotely.  For lawyers, it can be more difficult to assess the parties’ body language and to ensure that they understand exactly what is being said.  

How do you prepare for a CVP hearing?
To prepare for a CVP hearing in Family Court, consider the following tips:

  • Test Your Equipment: Ensure your device, camera, microphone, and internet connection work well in advance.
  • Familiarize Yourself with the Platform: Practice using the CVP or similar video conferencing tools to become comfortable with the technology.
  • Choose a Suitable Environment: Find a quiet, private space with good lighting for the duration of the hearing.
  • Dress Appropriately: Even though the hearing is virtual, it is still a formal court proceeding, so dress as you would for an in-person hearing.
  • If you are represented, consider attending the offices of your legal representative so that they are with you during the hearing, which will enable them to explain to you what is happening, and enable for more effective communication during the hearing, if necessary.

Summary Remote (CVP) hearings
CVP hearings in the Family Court have represented a step towards modernising the Family Court, and they are likely to remain a fixture of the Family Justice system for the foreseeable future.  Remote hearings can provide a flexible, efficient, and safe alternative to traditional in-person court appearances. While the thought of participating in a virtual hearing might seem daunting, understanding the process and preparing adequately can help ensure that the experience is as smooth and positive as possible. As technology continues to evolve, so too will the ways in which we access and participate in the legal system, hopefully making justice more accessible for all.

Here at Roythornes, our experienced Family Law team regularly deal with hearings in the Family Court, both remotely and in person.