When lockdown commenced on the 23rd March 2020, family courts throughout the country were required to close their doors. In those first few weeks, the majority of cases were either adjourned or converted to telephone hearings. The family division frantically prepared a substantial document to assist all participants in the family court process, which was received on the 19th March 2020. The dramatic nature and thoroughness of the guidance meant that the landscape, practice, and procedure for how the family courts completed their work was completely changed over the course of only a few weeks.
Impact of COVID-19 on the court system
Being part of this process, as a family solicitor, the requirement to learn a different way to work was a challenge. However, what cannot be ignored is the impact that this will have had, and continues to have, on the families who not only use the family courts but need them.
Having to go to court, particularly when it concerns arrangements for your children and the division of your financial life, is one of the hardest things people must go through. This process can ultimately decide how much money you have; what you own; and when you will see your children. The changes that the new systems have brought have been extremely difficult for many families.
It cannot be underestimated how well the court system has managed with the effect of COVID-19. However, the landscape we are currently left with is quite frankly, terrifying.
Dealing with cases remotely
The court, where it can, is trying to manage and finalise cases remotely either by telephone hearings or video-platforms. As set out in the guidance from the president of the family division, we are truly dealing with a ‘smorgasbord’ of procedures, with each individual court and judge dealing with their own cases differently.
However, it is starting to be recognised that the court cannot manage the same number of hearings each day as when the courts operated face-to-face. This not only affects the routine short directions hearings, but also the full contested hearings, listed for one day; two days; even weeks.
I recently had a short hearing at a local court, to review the progress and listing of a face-to-face hearing. It was here that we were advised that Leeds is the only local court taking cases, and they were managing one a day. The courts in our locality cumulatively handle hundreds of cases each day. The backlog is immense. There is still no idea as to when the local courts may open again for face-to-face hearings. The prospect is frightening, and these considerations do not even take into account fresh applications that are being made at court.
Is a ‘business as usual’ approach possible?
Social media and news reports may suggest that the courts are moving on with a ‘business as usual’ approach, and the use of technology has simply stepped in to manage the process seamlessly. However, this is not the reality on the ground.
Resolution – the family lawyers affiliated body for good practice - has recently confirmed that the length of time to get a divorce is getting longer. This is due to significant backlogs and issues with social distancing at the central divorce centre in England at Bury St Edmonds. They are currently only now processing paper format petitions received on the 28th February. That is 14-week delay. The court estimates that decree nisi takes 24 weeks from there, which would mean that the total length of obtaining a divorce is approximately 44 weeks.
However, there is the online platform which was previously only available to lay-participants. This was opened in January 2020 to members of the legal profession, enabling online divorces to be issued. This process is much faster and can mean you are divorced in around 4 months’ time.
What can you do? How can we help?
Get some advice. If you have a case currently going through the courts, you should find out what is going to happen with that case and the likely next steps. Winston Solicitors maintain close network links to the local courts. This means that we have the most up to date information as to how the courts are operating. Winston Solicitors are at the forefront of technology and we can participate in all of the forms of remote hearing and filing of electronic documents as required by the courts; we also process divorce petitions online. This is not the case for every family law firm.
There has never been a situation like this before, meaning now is the most important time to have a safe, empathetic and knowledgeable pair of hands to take you through the family court process, and provide help on how to navigate outside it if possible. We can offer a free 30-minute consultation on the phone or via a video platform, at your convenience, so we can talk though your concerns and help you find some options.