The shift to remote hearings in family courts could undermine the authority of the UK legal system, warns Claire Porter, a family lawyer from Cheshire firm, SAS Daniels.
Although legal practitioners felt fairness and justice had been achieved most or all of the time, 83% of clients had concerns about how their case was dealt with remotely according to a 2021 Nuffield Family Justice Observatory report, titled ‘Remote hearings in the family court post pandemic’.
Claire Porter (pictured) is a partner in the family team at SAS Daniels LLP which has offices located in Chester, Congleton, Macclesfield and Stockport. Porter believes concerns set out in the 2021 report are just the tip of the iceberg:
“Many judges and legal representatives have found virtual hearings very convenient as they cut out travel and waiting time at court but the legal system exists to deliver justice to ordinary members of the public, not to simplify caseloads. Clearly, remote hearings have succeeded in keeping case volumes moving during the pandemic and have also helped remove some of the financial pressure on the court system, but at what cost?
“Most people feel more comfortable with a remote hearing. They are less formal and intimidating than attending a courtroom with all the associated paraphernalia of the legal system but during the lockdown, I was shocked by the casual attitude and lack of respect shown by many participants in remote hearings.
“Courtrooms are physical and symbolic statements that reinforce the gravity of the law. The authority of the court system is being undermined.”
The Cheshire family lawyer also believes remote hearings pose too many practical issues for clients:
“One of my client’s final hearings had to be abandoned due to connectivity problems experienced by the other party’s barrister which led to worrying delays as the hearing could not proceed. Privacy is another concern – I’ve heard about someone being expected to attend a hearing from a hospital bed within earshot of everyone around them.
“Then there are day-to-day distractions such as a dog barking, doorbell or phone ringing.”
Although Porter believes the administrative side of remote hearings has improved over the past two years, the delicate nature of most family cases requires a personal touch that can be lost on screen:
“Where urgency and sensitivity are required, as in child arrangement cases, the disjointed and ephemeral nature of remote hearings seem profoundly inappropriate. There is a risk that they will bring judicial proceedings down to the level of trivial social media channels.”
Her views have been echoed by Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the high court, who says:
“Many lawyers and judges have found it extremely difficult to conduct online hearings with the level of empathy and humanity required.”
“Remote hearings are challenging for all involved but they are here to stay so it is imperative that family lawyers give their clients the best support to ensure they feel heard, whatever the means of delivery.”