Most families facing virtual family court hearings concerned about handling of their case, study finds

Professionals feel justice delivered in most cases but continue to raise issues around remote hearings' scope for 'empathetic and humane' practice

Image of book marked 'family court' and judge's gavel (credit: Vitalii Vodolazskyi / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Vitalii Vodolazskyi / Adobe Stock)

Almost nine in 10 (88%) of parents and other family members who have experienced remote hearings in the family justice system have concerns about the handling of their case, research has found.

Two-thirds (66%) of parents and relatives who took part in the survey, by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO), a charity that supports better outcomes for children in the family justice system, said their case had ‘not been dealt with well’.

Virtual hearings have been widely adopted within the family court during the coronavirus pandemic, but there are question marks over their fairness and scope for humane practice. Issues have also been raised around remote hearings’ reliance on technology, and around support for parents and families, which is lacking in many cases.

The new NFJO report found that two in five parents and families (40%) said they had not understood what happened during their hearing.

Professionals including social workers, lawyers, magistrates and judges, who made up 90% of the 1,300-strong survey group, were more likely to express positive opinions of how remote hearings were working.

More than three-quarters (78%) believed fairness and justice had been achieved in most cases they had been involved with. Nonetheless, many voiced concerns about how difficult it is to create an appropriate environment in which to deal with “personal and painful matters” via a telephone or video link.

Harder to achieve empathy in remote cases

The NFJO report noted that the family justice system requires an “empathetic and humane approach”, which both family members and professionals said was hard to achieve in virtual cases.

Particular concern was raised around hearings where interim care orders were made to remove newborn babies, and around final hearings where care orders or placement or adoption orders were made.

The survey found that both types of hearings were currently being conducted by telephone, with one barrister describing a mother having to take part in a hearing, with no support, from a hospital bed soon after giving birth.

In cases where babies were removed, the research found many local authorities were still not facilitating face-to-face contact with mothers, preventing maternal bonds forming or being maintained.

A further concern was in domestic abuse cases where respondents said they felt “retraumatized and unsafe when they had to listen to or see their alleged abuser from their own home”.

‘The judge can’t see what person I am’

The Parents, Families & Allies Network (PFAN), which alongside the NFJO survey carried out an in-depth consultation with 21 parents involved in remote family court hearings, said of its findings:

“Almost all parents felt that their legal representation was compromised by the remote hearings and coronavirus restrictions and that this detrimentally affected the court outcomes that included children being taken into care.”

PFAN found that some parents and families had “severe difficulty” accessing their legal representation and in speaking with them before or between hearings. Parents who could not meet face-to-face with their legal representatives found it “very difficult” to present their case and many, who were only able to access their hearing by telephone, felt “invisible”.

One parent said: “So my last two hearings I didn’t meet my barrister. The last hearing, I didn’t get to brief my barrister ahead of the hearing. The judge has never seen me, she can’t see what person I am.

“I’m not allowed to speak so she can’t hear what kind of person I am,” the parent added. “My barrister said things that were incorrect and I wasn’t allowed to put my hand up quickly and correct her.”

A parent advocate who coordinated the PFAN consultation said that for many, remote hearings “severely affected” their mental health and highlighted the lack of support available to parents and families. “There is no available helpline to call and parents do not have a clear point of contact for help in such challenging times,” the advocate said.

Tech problems’ significant impact

The NFJO’s report highlighted the extent to which technical difficulties were continuing to affect remote hearings, with connectivity, problems seeing and hearing people, and difficulties identifying who was speaking, all common issues raised.

Professionals reported a “particular shortage” of staff sufficiently trained in the setup and use of the various types of technology being put to use to run virtual hearings.

The PFAN consultation spoke with a mother who gave evidence in a ‘hybrid’ court hearing, in which family members attend while other participants join digitally.

“There was terrible feedback on the audio and I was managing whether the sound was coming out of my laptop, or out of his [the judge],” she said.

“Whose speaker was on?  They couldn’t hear the barrister for the local authority very often,” the mother added. “Those things are quite frustrating when you are being asked quite difficult questions and being accused of something that was really, really awful.”

Parents and professionals both complained that in some instances, hearings’ virtual format diminished the seriousness of proceedings, meaning participants behaved more casually than they would have in court. Another mother described a social worker “zipping in and out” of a hearing rather than giving it their full attention.

More support needed

A series of recommendations made in the NFJO report set out to address some of the difficulties reported, including by:

  • Providing additional support to ensure all parties can fully participate in proceedings
  • Introducing national guidelines around face-to-face contact for parents who lose babies during virtual hearings
  • Improving a range of court administration practices, including by initiating standard virtual backgrounds to improve the gravitas of remote hearings
  • Implementing better technical support for judges and magistrates

PFAN is calling for an end to hearings where parents only have telephone access, and for remote hearings to only take place where face-to-face hearings are impossible and the need for a hearing is urgent and better support for parents involved.

Commenting on the report, Lisa Harker, the director of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, said it was clear that judges, barristers and other professionals had put in “enormous personal effort” to keep the system moving during the pandemic.

“We cannot put the lives of thousands of children and families on hold while we hope for face-to-face practice to resume,” Harker said. “But equally life-changing decisions must be reached fairly for all involved”

“The family court is often dealing with incredibly vulnerable people, from victims of domestic abuse to mums being separated from their babies, and they must be supported to fully participate,” Harker added. “Our consultation showed great concern among professionals for the experience of traumatised parents facing the system. It also highlighted that many of the issues could be solved with relatively simple measures.”

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