The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory has this week published its follow-up consultation on how remote hearings in the family justice system have been working since the outbreak of Covid-19. Over 1,300 professionals and participants of the family justice system from across England and Wales were involved in the consultation, and participated by completing an online survey.

One of the key benefits of remote hearings for all Court users that comes through from the consultation is that of efficiency, with those participating reporting that hearings tended to take place on time and there is less waiting around. Remote hearings can afford the parties greater flexibility and a judge who participated in the survey commented that their experience was that “the number of ‘no-shows’ by lay parties has in fact decreased, as the court comes to them rather than them having to come to the court”.

There appears to be a wide range of views on the question of whether the remote hearings that those who responded to the survey have participated in have been fair. Whilst 78% of the professionals who participated in the consultation felt the process had been either fair or fair most of the time, the report found that: “the majority of the 132 parents who responded to the question felt their case had not been dealt with well, and just under half of those who answered the follow-up question had not understood what had happened during the hearing.” I wonder if this would be the case regardless of whether or not the hearing was being conducted remotely or face-to-face.

The consultation found that a strong theme in the responses was concern “about the difficulty of creating an empathetic and supportive environment when hearings are held remotely”. The difficulties of communication during the hearing between the parties and their legal representatives when they are based in different locations was also raised.

The consultation concludes with suggestions from the participants as to how improvements could be made. These include:

  • having separate rooms for the parties and their advisors to access the hearing together in;
  • during the hearing ensuring that the outcome has been understood by the parties; and
  • having a virtual usher in a virtual lobby before parties join the hearing.

We await to see what changes will be made following the publication of this consultation and the impact they would have.