The disruption to nearly every aspect of life prompted by the Coronavirus pandemic has had significant implications for families undergoing legal issues, but it appears the courts handling family matters have coped better than most.
According to Legal Futures, these courts have managed to avoid the major issues with which criminal courts have struggled, in particular by not having a large backlog of cases to deal with.
It quoted the president of the family division Sir Andrew McFarlane as telling an online conference in October that lawyers, along with judges and court staff, “can hold your heads high looking back at what we’ve achieved over the last six months”.
He noted that many courts had no backlog in cases at all, while those that did had a clear plan for dealing with this and were “cracking on” with the task in hand.
The news may be welcomed by those needing help from family solicitors in Surrey, who might have been concerned that proceedings would be disrupted by ongoing lockdowns.
A key reason for the success of family law processes has been the widespread adoption of digital measures. Just as so many work meetings in various firms up and down the country have taken place via Zoom or other online conferencing facilities, so it is family courts have been able to make good use of this technology.
Reflecting on this, Sir Andrew observed: “We are sitting and have sat more days in family than ever before despite the fact we haven’t had courtrooms.”
This news will be heartening for anyone who faces family court proceedings. Since such processes can be difficult for many involved, the fact that the duration of the process will not be drawn out by the current circumstances will bring some relief.
Of course, in some cases individuals may feel more comfortable being evidence by a video link or other remote means, but Sir Andrew has warned that the effort involved in carrying forward proceedings digitally has put a strain on court staff and lawyers and he was adamant that the government should not make digital proceedings standard practice after the pandemic.
Indeed, the report noted there are many reasons to conclude that the current use of remote working is not an improvement on the previous means of working, but a case of people making the best of a very challenging situation.
The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory survey published in October revealed one of the difficulties was faced by parents in remote hearings, with four out of ten reporting they did not understand the remote hearings they had taken part in, while two thirds were not satisfied that their case had been well handled on a remote basis.
At the same time, some legal professionals warned that remote working had been an impediment to creating the kind of supportive environment clients needed.
Reflecting on this, Sir Andrew noted it was clear there is still “work to be done”.
The importance of being able to carry out family law proceedings with the best possible support and outcomes for clients is something Gummersalls will always seek to offer, despite the current difficulties.
Citizens Advice warned last summer that family law firms could be busy with an increase in divorce cases, as the various restrictions placed on households could increase domestic strain.
In June, it noted that its page on divorce had been one of its most-visited pages in May, demonstrating the impact spending more time under the same roof had had on struggling relationships.