Have your say on impact of virtual family court hearings and child protection conferences on practice

Social workers' unique perspectives on the impact of virtual hearings and conferences on children and families are needed to shape practice as it becomes a new normal, says Lisa Harker

Image of man with laptop making video call (credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)
(credit: fizkes / Adobe Stock)

By Lisa Harker, director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory

Dramatically overhauling entire working practices in the family justice system was not on the agenda for 2020 and, if it had been, research and evaluations would have been a core part of the design process.

But Covid-19 turned the system on its head. Previously inconceivable practices – from remote courtrooms to socially-distanced contact between children and parents – became the new normal overnight. Professionals had to make rapid decisions about the support that could be provided to children and families and, initially at least, these decisions had to be made in the dark.

The exchange of ideas between people tackling the issues first-hand became a vital source of inspiration and mutual support. Innovation and sheer determination on the part of so many proved how agile and resourceful the family justice system could be.

But it is now clear that the crisis will have longer term implications for children, families and services than we originally hoped. It’s vital that decisions are made with the input of all those involved – through data, but also through testimony from those whose lives are bound up in, or are working in, the system.

Remote hearings

In just two weeks, between 23 March and 6 April, the number of video and audio hearings in England and Wales exploded as the brakes were put on face-to-face hearings. By the beginning of April, 90% of all hearings across the whole of the justice system were being heard remotely.

During April, more than 1,000 respondents – from families to judges to social workers – took part in our two-week rapid consultation to gather the experiences of those involved in newly remote hearings in the family courts, initiated by the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane.

The immense response within weeks of lockdown starting highlighted how many people were having to rapidly adapt. We heard about the very real challenges the use of audio or video technology posed to fairness in certain cases.

Response after response highlighted the frustration felt by judges, barristers and solicitors, that the deeply sensitive interpersonal communication required in their profession was not possible via phone or video link. We were though also heartened to hear of positive experiences, which could inform future practice throughout and beyond the pandemic.

It is now clear that, while some physical court hearings are taking place, social distancing will be a feature of working life for some time to come, with many hearings still taking place over video or by phone. The system is still adjusting to these changes while facing the challenge of a backlog of cases.

As a result, we are carrying out a second, follow-up survey to see how those in the system – both professionals and families – are coping. Social workers have a unique perspective to contribute to this work. This online survey is open until 30 September.

Child protection conferences

The paths that lead children and families into the family justice system, and the interventions available along the way, are as vital to understand as the courtroom.

Child protection conferences are a key point at which to identify children at risk. But it is clear that operating these sensitive meetings virtually will have an impact on the experiences of all those invol

ved.

How has Covid-19 affected the ability of parents and family members to take part in conferences? Has the attendance of the range of professionals invited been affected? And how are the voices of children included in decision-making?

Child protection conferences offer a window of opportunity to engage with and support families without the need for court intervention, but have always presented challenges for practice. The pandemic has both heightened their importance and further compromised their effectiveness.

Dr Mary Baginsky of Kings College London recently looked at the experience of 15 local authorities in England, and heard many report that virtual attendance at these meetings seems likely to become an accepted feature of practice. To build on this work, and to understand the detail of what is happening in this important process, we are launching a new piece of research with Dr Baginsky.

To paint a complete picture, we need both parents and professionals with experience of child protection conferences under Covid-19 to take part in our online survey.

Unchartered territory

The impact of Covid-19 on the family justice system and the children and families at the centre of it will not be short-lived. It has now become a long-term focus of our research and we are continuing to move swiftly to compile data and evidence to help inform those making decisions. But the experiences and insights of those facing these challenges are the lynchpin.

Social workers are exploring this uncharted territory every day: they are speaking to families, sitting in virtual courtrooms and making decisions that can have life-changing consequences

We’ve seen how being forced to experiment can bring new ways of working to fruition which have a lifespan beyond the pandemic – from hybrid courtrooms, to digital contact which improves the participation of young people.

The insights of the children’s social care workforce are an invaluable part of the evidence we seek. Please help us shape the system to not only survive the coming months but emerge improved.

5 Responses to Have your say on impact of virtual family court hearings and child protection conferences on practice

  1. Yaiza September 25, 2020 at 4:15 pm #

    We need to start listening to the professionals that are day to day with the children in residential care settings. Social workers have a perspective on the impact of their doing in the young people that is inaccurate most of the time.

  2. Chris Coutanche Mckenzie Friend September 25, 2020 at 8:42 pm #

    I have found as a professional Mckenzie friend that remote hearings at the early stages of proceedings in private law cases has helped matters, my concern has been cases that relate to none molestation applications and the delay to a final hearing, this can cause issues with child contact applications and needs to be dealt with by video conferencing systems at the very least. However cases involving tested evidence need to be before the court as to give every opportunity for a fair hearing

  3. Jeanette Maddams September 25, 2020 at 9:52 pm #

    Don’t forget the amazing job that Child Contact centres are doing with parents and children on the front line of providing zooom contact meetings and now face to face with covid secure rules in place.

  4. C Tolley September 29, 2020 at 12:03 am #

    Complete shambles rushed decision didn’t listen to both sides left feeling hopeless and not not allowed to see our granddaughter how can you make such important decisions over the phone let down by the justice system feeling even more punished than before

  5. Travis September 29, 2020 at 1:40 am #

    Its not really working in my opinion and i still dont know were i am with all these virtual conferences and core am totally lost with it all to be fair