Two thirds of parents and relatives involved in remote Family Court hearings felt their cases were not handled well and four out of 10 didn’t understand what was going on, according to new research. Since lockdown measures have eased, Family Court hearings have been conducted either entirely or partially remotely, where a limited number of people attend court and others join by video link or, more commonly, by phone.
A study conducted by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory revealed the scale of unhappiness: 88% of parents and relatives had concerns about how their cases were handled; two thirds (66%) felt that their case had not been dealt with well; and 40% said they had not understood what had happened during the hearing. The research drew on a survey of over 1,300 people, including more than 1,100 legal professionals and 132 parents and family members.
By contrast, most lawyer and other professional respondents felt that hearings were going well, with only 13% disagreeing. Some noted the benefits of working remotely, commenting that people were more likely to attend hearings, particularly vulnerable witnesses who may otherwise be intimidated by the formality of a courtroom.
Decisions made in Family Courts have far reaching consequences which go to the heart of the parties’ personal lives including, for example, whether a parent is granted custody of a child, or whether a newborn baby should be taken into care.
Sir Andrew MacFarlane, the most senior judge in the Family Court told the BBC that ‘a major part of being a family judge is to empathise with the human beings at the centre of the case’. ‘It’s very difficult to do that even across a video link, very hard over a phone,’ he added.
Professionals and family members alike voiced concerns around the difficulties in creating an empathetic and supportive environment remotely. One mother surveyed, who had taken part in a hearing over the phone, said that she felt the court had forgotten her humanity.
‘The family court is often dealing with incredibly vulnerable people, from victims of domestic abuse to mums being separated from their babies, and they must be supported to fully participate,’ said Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. ‘Our consultation showed great concern among professionals for the experience of traumatised parents facing the system. It also highlighted that many of the issues could be solved with relatively simple measures.’
Attending hearings via phone or video link means that families are unable to speak to their lawyers during the proceedings, and do not receive any support following the hearing. Instead, parties are left alone to process the court’s decision. A social worker reported that ‘the parent sobbing alone in their flat listening to the ruling of not getting baby back was harrowing’.
The Family Court support service Cafcass reported a steep increase in child contact cases over the past year. In September 2020 there were 5,761 new cases compared to 5,067 in 2019. Sir Andrew MacFarlane said that this increase is owing to a culmination of factors including a backlog in the system, the deterioration of existing child arrangements, and a rise in domestic abuse cases.
The study made a number of recommendations in the report including the provision of in-person support for vulnerable witnesses, better technology and more face-to-face hearings where possible.