Remote hearings in family courts can obstruct justice, Law Society warns

People report feeling ‘left out and invisible’ in court proceedings

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Tuesday 29 June 2021 03:26 BST
<p>Law Society notes people who do not have fast enough WiFi or correct devices or require a translator or are not adept at using technology will struggle during remote hearings</p>

Law Society notes people who do not have fast enough WiFi or correct devices or require a translator or are not adept at using technology will struggle during remote hearings

Remote hearings in the family courts can obstruct justice and must be held in person if individuals are not able to properly understand what is happening, the Law Society has warned.

The professional body, which represents solicitors, noted people who do not have fast enough WiFi or the correct devices or are not adept at using technology will struggle during remote hearings.

While individuals who require a translator are also said to find it difficult to engage with the legal process when it is carried out via video or telephone.

“Some litigants in person – parties without legal representation – are also struggling with remote hearings, especially when they are complex,” the Law Society’s president Stephanie Boyce said. “This causes difficulties in accessing justice and being able to fully participate, which also causes delays to hearings.”

She added: “The family courts and Court of Protection make monumental decisions on the fundamental human rights of the parties, who are often vulnerable. It is important to ensure that access to justice and the rule of law are upheld in these cases”.

Ms Boyce said while in some cases remote hearings have had benefits, this is not always the case and in-person hearings must be the “default format” if people think they are unable to “fully participate” and grasp what is going on.

She added: “We must fully analyse via research and central data the impact of remote hearings on access to justice and justice outcomes before any decision on the longer-term use of remote hearings is made by HM Courts & Tribunals Service.”

Adrienne Barnett, a senior lecturer in law who specialises in domestic abuse and the family courts, told The Independent the Law Society’s statement on remote hearings in the family courts is “very much welcome”.

She added: “It is particularly important to gain more data about how vulnerable parties including children and victims and survivors of domestic abuse are experiencing and navigating remote hearings.

“Some victims and survivors have found remote hearings helpful and safer as they don't have to come into direct contact with their abusers. However, this is not always the case.

“A mother told about how the perpetrator stared at her on Zoom throughout the hearing, which she found unnerving and daunting, and was something that may have been noticed by a judge at a courtroom hearing.”

Dr Barnett, who specialised in family law while practising as a barrister for more than 30 years, said she had spoken to others who “felt left out and invisible” - especially if they have poor WiFi or if the hearing is happening via telephone.

She warned it is becoming increasingly commonplace for children to be taken into care because the mother has been subjected to domestic abuse — saying the burden of responsibility is being wrongly placed on the victim instead of the violent partner.

It comes after a report from the end of last year found parents have raised concerns over the effectiveness of remote child protection meetings amid fears vulnerable women could be at risk.

The study, carried out by Nuffield Family Justice Observatory and King’s College London, discovered three quarters of parents thought virtual meetings negatively impacted their capacity to take part.

Child protection meetings take place when there are concerns a child could be at risk of serious harm from abuse or neglect and are often the last step before the legal process begins for a child to be placed in care away from their parents.

The overwhelming bulk of previously in-person child protection meetings are taking place via video or telephone in the wake of the coronavirus emergency, researchers found.

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