For all of us, 2020 has given reason to pause and reflect and anticipate a future that is likely to be much changed and altered following COVID-19.
Government announcements are moving quickly and the legal professional, like other businesses, has had to adapt and problem solve unlike any other time to ensure that urgent services are still being made available. COVID-19 hasn’t change the need or demand for legal services and may well have increased the need for many. The response from businesses, including the legal sector, keen to thrive has been prompt and encouraging in the face of the many challenges posed by the pandemic.
At the same time, the considerations for the legal profession and the family justice system in terms of remote working are arguably much more complex and demanding when you consider what a working, modern and professional system requires. Indeed, that is a justice system working remotely that is required to juggle lay parties, advocates, witnesses (along with interpreters) and intermediaries. Nonetheless, the President of the Family Division was clear in his announcement on 27 March 2020 that ‘we must not lose sight of our primary purpose as a Family Justice system, which is to enable the Courts to deal with cases justly, having regard to the welfare issues involved’.
It is important, therefore, that remote working has been possible, with solicitors offering Skype and Zoom client meetings, and hearings in the Family Courts dramatically changing to frequently take place by telephone and video link. The timescales in which these unprecedented changes have been made have had to be quick and reactive in the face of COVID-19. It has been vital for the public, and certainly the most vulnerable. It has been meant that solicitors, barristers, guardians, social workers and mediators have been able to remain committed to addressing clients’ needs.
This new way of working has been required in order for the profession to respond to and deal with child arrangements and children continuing to see both parents, the increase in reports of domestic abuse and protective injunctions, and public law matters involving children and local authority involvement. There will always be issues to explore, develop and improve in these new times of remote working. Equally, some cases will be entirely unsuitable for remote hearings and have beenrequired to be adjourned and the Courts are dealing with huge delays. In family cases, it has to be a careful balance given the sensitive issues and sometimes serious welfare concerns involved.
However, as businesses and professions across the board delve further into remote working it has broadened how we can all provide services, revolutionised the use of technology in the Family Courts, and may have permanently changed how we work and deliver family justice in the future. Expert legal advice should be sought if a remote hearing is not suitable including in the case of a contested trial and when cross examination is needed of ‘live’ evidence or if there are vulnerabilities or language difficulties.