Family law Solicitor Zoe Worthington at Cheshire law firm, SAS Daniels, explains how family courts are still operating and protecting vulnerable people during the Covid-19 outbreak.
Are the Family Courts Still Open?
The family courts remain functioning despite the covid-19 outbreak with court staff being classified as key workers. Whilst hearings will not take place within the court itself, the courts have adapted quickly in utilising technology available and continuing with ‘remote hearings’. This means that hearings will be carried out via video conferencing or telephone conferencing. SAS Daniels are liaising with the courts weekly to see what provisions have been made for our particular hearings and our solicitors have already successfully conducted hearings remotely.
What Types of Matters Would Need Urgent Attention?
Urgent non-molestation orders
If you need urgent protection from domestic violence an emergency application can be made. The person you are seeking protection from would usually be notified of the order and given the opportunity to make representations at the first hearing. If you do not want the person to know about the application as you are fearful that this will put you in danger you can apply ‘without notice’. The court will then hold a hearing and a Judge may issue an order at that hearing without the other person being present. Once the order has been issued that person will then have to be notified but at that point you will already have the protection of an emergency order, this will stay in place until the next hearing.
During Covid-19 we expect that such applications will be dealt with either on paper which would mean that the court will simply review the application and supporting statement and make an emergency order or they will carry out a remote hearing before making an order.
Urgent children applications
Where there is an urgent issue such as an imminent risk of abduction an urgent and without notice application would be made. The court will need to be satisfied that there is an imminent risk of abduction, this requires careful consideration. Factors such as the other parent holding the children’s passports and making comments either to family members or you directly that they intend to leave the jurisdiction would be clear evidence of an imminent risk.
Urgent applications require a hearing so that the court can hear representations from the person applying as to their reasons for applying and what protection they are seeking. We expect again that these urgent applications will be dealt with via video or telephone conference. We will continue to advise all new and existing clients in relation to any safeguarding concerns they may have for their children.
Freezing orders in financial proceedings
A freezing order can be made in financial proceedings to stop one party from disposing of an asset or a number of assets. The reason that a party may seek to dispose of an asset is to avoid it forming part of a financial settlement. An urgent application can be made where it is anticipated someone will be taking steps to dispose of assets. The person applying for such an order must evidence to the court that there is a real risk of this taking place and there is a risk of hardship and injustice should those assets be disposed of. A freezing order can be made over assets such as property, bank accounts, cars, business assets and shares.
A without notice application can be made in these cases and we can advise you as to whether an application would be appropriate in your circumstances. A hearing would be listed remotely in these cases.
Live-Stream Family Law Cases by the Court of Appeal
Following in the footsteps of the Supreme Court, which began broadcasting selected civil cases in late 2018, the Court of Appeal is set to live-stream family cases on the judiciary website, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter with the first hearing anticipated later this year.
The aim of this decision is to promote transparency in the family court, which is often described as being enveloped in a ‘shroud of secrecy’.
Wide-ranging issues of great public importance such as Islamic faith marriages, access to fertility records and transgender identity have come from the family jurisdiction and it is imperative for the courts to allow the public access to see how these decisions are reached.
Due to the sensitive nature and context of family law cases, evidently, there must be limitations on the disclosure of information. Parties will be notified prior to their hearing that their case has been selected and will be given the opportunity to voice any concerns or objections.
In order to provide for safeguarding issues, certain measures shall be put in place. Most notably, there is to be a 90-second delay in the broadcasting enabling the judge or court clerk to discontinue the streaming if required, i.e. if there are any disruptions to the proceedings or any reporting restrictions. The camera is to be focused on the judge’s bench with no inclusion of the parties or witnesses on the screen.
Anonymity can also be granted in order to preserve protection for a party or witness with the discretion as to whether the case should be live-streamed at all being retained to the court.
The live-streaming of cases brings the family courts into the 21st Century and should be seen as a positive insight into the understanding of complex decisions, which could have an impact on many of our lives.