How Social Distancing is affecting the Family Courts
Kevan Hankinson, family law specialist and head of the family law department here at Butcher & Barlow, considers the impact that the measures put in place to limit the spread of coronavirus will have on families who have been through or who are in the legal system.
Impact on Children Cases in Court
As regards children’s cases, the courts are clearly going to try to keep running as best they can, and it is likely to be accepted that cases that involve the welfare of a child are part of an essential service that must be preserved where possible – but this will not be easy.
If you have a current case before the court, or are about to start one, the court will now operate a system of priorities and the President of the Family Court has now issued guidance that can be found here https://mcusercontent.com/2750134472ba930f1bc0fddcd/files/f420a1c4-a392-4ec1-ae98-fde462384955/President_guidance.pdf. In brief the courts will deal as follows:
- Adjourning cases they think they can safely move to later in the year;
- Dealing with any hearing that they can via correspondence, or telephone or video conferencing; this is expected to be the norm, and solicitors are expected to organise it;
- Where a hearing must take place, limiting this only to the most urgent and essential matters and adapting as much as possible – it is in fact quite unlikely that there will be face to face hearings in the immediate future
There is likely to be a very high need for solicitors and their clients to be inventive and creative. For example, a renewed emphasis on trying to discuss and agree important points out of court, or try to narrow the issues as much as possible and agree orders.
It is also very likely that services upon which the court relies, like CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) and contact centres will be stretched or in some cases shut down. Reports may be late, and cases delayed, and options to arrange for children to spend time with a parent may be less varied and harder to find than they have been.
Already some local authorities are closing contact centres for children who have been taken into care to spend time with their families, and to the extent that this contradicts their duty to ensure children see parents, this may be very contentious and even challenged in court unless Local Authorities do all they can to enable communication by other means.
In terms of the general impact, there will probably be, as in all walks of life, examples of selfish and unpleasant behaviour – time with a child cancelled without good reason, or the problems of the court and other services used to delay cases and prolong or even worsen disputes.
However, it is to be hoped that there will be examples too of kindness and compassion. Whilst not every children’s case, especially where there are serious issues of welfare or abusive behaviour, can be solved by agreement or without the courts, hopefully the current situation will make people think carefully about what is important for their children and whether their disputes are really so important.
Whilst hopefully most families will not have to deal with severe illness, the thought that we cannot take our families for granted is a sobering one. What children need, in a worrying time like this, is all the love and support they can get, from all sides of their family wherever that can safely be provided. Some people at least will be thinking now that this a good time to set aside past disputes and prioritise their children’s needs.
Solicitors and their clients will need to be creative and adapt. It is likely that discussion, and representatives talking about cases outside of, and without the help of the court, will be all the more important. Clients will need to talk over their concerns and work out what issues are critical and how where possible to get around problems to avoid children losing touch with their families or the current outbreak making a bad situation worse.
If you have a family issue which you need advice on, contact your local office and ask to speak to the Family Law team.
Kevan Hankinson can be contacted on 0161 797 5650 or firstname.lastname@example.org