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.
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
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.
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.