Family court takes stock
The full family court estate should be open for public use by early July, a report said. However, president of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane warned in The Road Ahead for the Family Court in England and Wales that the road to normality is long. He said this “significant change in perspective” will impact every case management decision. The report sets out a broad framework for the next six months or more with a focus on time management and the ongoing restrictions. He said the reality is that for a sustained period, the court must seek to achieve the “fair, just and timely determination of a high volume of cases with radically reduced resources in sub-optimal court settings”.
The report’s publication follows a recent in-depth report following a rapid review into the impact of covid-19 on civil court users by the Civil Justice Council; and an earlier report from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory on remote hearings in the family court. The president said we have reached a juncture in the family court’s journey through this crisis when it is “possible and necessary to take stock and to consider the road ahead”. In his introduction to the report, he added: “It is necessary to look at the road ahead because any earlier rose-tinted thoughts that ‘this will all be over by July’ have sadly evaporated.” He said it is unlikely anything approaching a return to the normal court working environment will be achieved before the end of 2020 or even spring 2021.
In the meantime, a form of ‘hybrid’ hearings will start to emerge as the court starts moving away from almost totally remote hearings. Hybrid hearings (where some parties attend in person and the remainder engage remotely) will, says the report, partly depend on the availability of a covid-safe working environment in the courts and court buildings; but these will be in short supply and may have to be shared with the criminal, civil and tribunal jurisdictions.
Time management is the report’s key message and the president warned: “If the family court is to have any chance of delivering on the needs of children or adults who need protection from abuse, or of their families for a timely determination of applications, there will need to be a very radical reduction in the amount of time that the court affords to each hearing.”