Family law

Effects of pandemic on family justice system becoming clear

Posted by
James Harbottle
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Effects of pandemic on family justice system becoming clear

Like almost every walk of life, the Covid-19 pandemic has had profound effects upon the family justice system. Some of these may just be transient, but others may change the system forever.

Three separate news stories this week give an indication of what some of those effects may be.

Ian Walker – Solicitor/ Mediator/ Arbitrator/ Managing Director

Huge increase in children cases

The first story is, hopefully, one of those transient effects.

The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, better known as ‘Cafcass’, which looks after the interests of children involved in family proceedings, has reported a huge rise in the number of new private law children cases it has received.

Private law cases are those that do not involve social services. They most commonly concern disputes between parents over arrangements for their children, i.e. how much time the children should spend with each parent.

Cafcass says that it received 3,648 new private law cases in April 2021, which is 1,092 cases (42.7%) more than the same period in 2020. These cases involved 5,541 children, which is 1,645 (42.2%) more children than April 2020.

This increase clearly appears to be linked to the pandemic. It seems to tell us two things.

Firstly, it indicates that many parents chose not to take their cases to court at the start of national lockdown last year. This could obviously mean that many children disputes went unresolved last year, affecting the lives of thousands of children across the country. Clearly, the system needs to be better prepared for the possibility of future lockdowns.

The other thing the increase appears to show is that, as we come slowly out of lockdown, parents are increasingly confident about using the courts again to resolve their disputes. Of course, this is likely to put a lot of pressure upon the family justice system, but hopefully that will just be temporary, until the number of new cases returns to normal levels.


Remote hearings to continue?remote hearings family justice system

The second story relates to something that may never return to the pre-pandemic ‘normal’: the use of remote court hearings, via telephone or the internet.

Before the pandemic remote court hearings were being discussed, but only really as an idea for the future. All of that changed with lockdown, with remote hearings becoming the norm, as a way of keeping the family justice system moving. And the consensus seems to be that they have generally been very successful.

It is unlikely that remote hearings will remain the norm after the pandemic is over, but it does seem that remote ways of the court doing its business will remain a feature of the system.

This was indicated by Mr Justice Williams, who has been leading a working group set up in 2018 to investigate the problem of the shortage of medical expert witnesses in the family courts. Addressing the annual conference of Resolution, the association of family lawyers, he said that many medical experts had given evidence remotely during the pandemic, and he hoped that this would become a permanent change.

Medical experts are obviously very busy people, and giving evidence remotely saves them the wasted time of travelling to and from court. Mr Justice Williams said that nearly all experts want to give evidence remotely, and he hoped that this would become the norm.

Hopefully, this will help to alleviate the shortage of medical experts, whose evidence can be so crucial in family cases, especially care proceedings.


Family lawyers to continue to work from home?remote working lawyer

The last story again comes from the Resolution conference, and also relates to remote working. Obviously, most family lawyers have had to work from home during the pandemic.

Resolution carried out a survey of its members on future working arrangements. The full result of the survey is not yet available, but early indications are that at least half of the members expect to continue to work from home, at least part of the time, after the pandemic is over.

Home working, which was virtually unheard of before the pandemic, looks like it may be commonplace in years to come, with family lawyers perhaps spending half of their time in the office, and half working from home. This, in turn, could mean that law firms will need fewer and smaller offices in the future.

These stories indicate the dramatic effect that the pandemic and resulting lockdown have had upon the family justice system. Some things may go back to how they were before the pandemic, but clearly other things may have changed forever.