Like every office, household, school and shop in England and Wales, the Courts have experienced huge upheaval over the last few weeks as a result of COVID-19 and have made necessary adjustments to ensure hearings can still be held.
Hearings were still going ahead in the Court buildings with everyone attending in the first few weeks of March, but during the week commencing 16 March 2020, all Hearings were converted to telephone Hearings. There were some Hearings that had to be adjourned and relisted but in the same way our office has adapted remarkably quickly to working remotely, so too, have the Courts.
In many ways, the Courts are running more efficiently. Normally, family, finance and children Hearings are scheduled in blocks, which can mean waiting around at the Court for some hours. However, as Hearings are now being held remotely, they are given a set time which means less waiting around for other parties. It is true that this time at Court can often lead to productive pre-Hearing discussions and negotiations with the other side. These conversations can still take place by telephone, although perhaps not as fluidly, but it is something I am sure we will get used to.
Magistrates, who sit on a Bench of three with a legal clerk, are not currently dealing with any of the cases in our local family Courts because of the difficulties in enabling four separate people to operate remotely in addition to the parties. it is my understanding that they are in the process of enabling this, as the Lay Magistrates deal with most of the private law proceedings relating to children. To ensure these Hearings go ahead, District Judges have been dealing with these Hearings, which is probably what is contributing to the delay of some civil and finance family cases. The Courts have had to prioritise in the same way that all businesses have. They are still dealing with new applications and listing urgent Hearings, often very swiftly. For us in the Family Team, we have seen COVID-19 throw up lots of novel issues for our cases involving children moving between households or their separated parents.
This situation has forced us all into going paperless in a very short space of time and the electronic production and filing of all documents is a huge step forward in my view and I hope will mean a paperless future now we have new routines in place that are likely to go on for some time. It is something some Courts, practitioners and barristers had already started to try and implement, although somewhat inconsistently: some litigators have an attachment to paper and their bundles!
Overall, the Courts, us as advocates and clients in general have shown great flexibility. I think this will have a positive impact on the future for the Courts and how Hearings are dealt with. Whilst I still believe it is better for Hearings, where parties are to give oral evidence, to happen 'in person', I think Hearings dealing with the directions for case are better dealt with remotely, which means less travel, less waiting time in the Court building and as a result, better efficiency.
These notes have been prepared for the purpose of an article only. They should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice.