At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts were forced to adapt to a new way of working and, until recently, the majority of hearings listed in the Family Courts have taken place remotely. Hearings have been conducted via various platforms such as CVP (Cloud Video Platform), Microsoft Teams and via telephone conference calls. As the world returns to some form of normality post-pandemic, the courts have been forced to consider what they have learnt from the use of remote hearings and to consider their use going forwards.
The Farquhar Committee Report
At the end of last year, HHJ Stuart Farquhar (Lead Judge of the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Financial Remedies Court (FRC)) was asked by The Honourable Mr Justice Mostyn to bring together a geographically diverse committee of judges to consider the use of remote hearings in the Financial Remedies Court (FRC). For clarity, these are the courts that resolve financial matters for families upon separation. Following the committee’s research, a report was produced outlining their recommendations.
Outcome of the Farquhar Committee Report (Part 1)
Within their report, the committee highlighted the following advantages and disadvantages of remote hearings:
- Efficiency and time saving - Previously lawyers and parties would have to travel to court. This would often mean waiting at court for several hours before actually appearing in front of a judge. With hearings taking place on a remote basis, both lawyers and parties will be able to access the hearing at a set time without having to wait in the court for an unknown period of time.
- Costs – Remote hearings waste less time, and therefore reduce wasted legal costs. Lawyers can attend to other work instead of having to charge for their waiting around time at court should the hearing be delayed. It also saves the client the costs of their lawyer’s time spent travelling to and from the court.
- Technology – The use of technology enables parties to attend the hearing from the comfort of their own home. This enables parties to avoid the potential stress involved in attending court, particularly were proceedings are acrimonious. If the parties do not feel comfortable attending the hearing remotely by themselves, they can arrange to join the hearing with their solicitor from their offices.
- Technology - It is easy to assume that everyone today is tech savvy, however this is simply not the case. The benefit of efficiency is undermined unless the parties have access to WIFI and can join the remote hearing on time and with ease. It also requires the parties to have suitable technology to join the hearing.
- Lack of Support - In the context of family proceedings, where matters are often emotive, it can be questioned whether it is appropriate to conduct hearings remotely. For lawyers, it is also more difficult to assess the parties’ body language and to ensure that they understand exactly what is being said. Research undertaken by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory found that almost half of parents involved in hearings held remotely had not understood what had taken place during the hearing, which is an alarming finding.
- Credibility - The authority of the court can be undermined where hearings are taking place remotely. Without the gravitas of being within the court itself, the parties can underestimate the seriousness of the proceedings and this can result in fewer cases settling than they would with the benefit of the pressure of an in-person hearing.
Ultimately, the committee concluded that the advantages of continuing with the use of remote hearings outweighed the disadvantages and, as such, there should be a number of hearings that should continue to be heard remotely. They acknowledged within their report that, whilst there were few supporters of remote hearings at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the FRC (in line with the Family Court as a whole) has continued to perform surprisingly well and that there now exists a good understanding of the benefits and disadvantages of remote hearings.
Following the report of the Farquhar Committee, guidance has been issued to confirm that the majority of hearings in the FRC will be heard remotely, where no evidence is to be given. The Lead Judges of the FRC zones will issue local guidance about which hearings should be heard remotely, and the appropriate arrangements for such hearings. It appears therefore, that whilst remote hearings are to be continued within the FRC, it will be up to each geographic zone as to how the remote hearings are implemented.
Having attended several remote hearings, it has been made apparent to myself that the process is often far more efficient. The courts issue detailed guidance to access the hearings remotely, which can be tested by the parties in advance of the hearing. Cutting out the travel time to the court itself also permits, in my opinion, more time for parties to discuss matters directly with their solicitor and barrister ahead of the hearing, where they will also meet with them remotely. In contrast, I have also attended hearings where there have, inevitably, been technical issues which have led to the delay of the hearing. Overall, as the courts and lawyers become even more accustomed to conducting hearings remotely, it is my opinion that the overall process will become much more efficient.