Remote Hearings, Online Applications, and Increased Workloads – The Impact of Covid-19 on the Family Court
On the 6th of January 2021, the England entered a third period of national lockdown in a bid to stop transmission of coronavirus, reduce the pressure on the NHS and save lives. However, whilst a necessary measure, this placed further pressures on the Family Courts of England and Wales to still provide access to justice and the court to those in need of their services. To overcome this hurdle, just as they did during the first and second lockdowns, the Family Court continued to utilise remote hearings and developed an online application process for court services whilst an increasing workload and backlog of cases continued to place pressures on court resources.
In October 2021, the Ministry of Justice released figures that show the pressure the Courts are facing due to the ongoing pandemic. Up to the end of June there were 138,822 cases started in the Family Court system, which when compared to the same period in 2011, 130,390 cases started, showing a rise of 6.4%* This rise in cases added to the backlog of 42,262 cases that had not yet been resolved from 2020. To combat this during the period of lockdown, remote hearings were used to hear cases that were considered urgent and could be resolved quickly. It was an effort that enabled some to have their matter heard before a judge or magistrates and allowed the Courts to continue to operate in a safe and efficient manner.
Another solution that was developed was an online application portal for matters such as divorce, finances following the breakdown of a marriage and applications involving children in an effort to speed up the process. However, the backlog of cases meant that waiting times for hearings were increased. For example, the average time from the issue of a divorce petition to Decree Nisi increased to 25 weeks and to Decree Absolute increased to 50 weeks. This, when compared to wait times pre-covid of 14 weeks and 29 weeks respectively, highlighted the need for more to be done.
The Family Mediation Voucher Scheme was launched to provide a contribution of up to £500 towards the cost of mediation for eligible cases, supporting people to resolve their dispute outside of court where appropriate. This was to allow people to attend mediation instead of court, which would alleviate pressure from the court and allow people to work out arrangements with the other party in an effort to reach an agreement concerning children, finance, and property with the assistance of a trained, independent mediator. This would allow the courts to focus on those cases where mediation was not a suitable form of dispute resolution and further free up resources in a system that was stretched thinly.
Following the latest government announcement from the government that Plan B measures are to be introduced to reduce the transmission of the Omicron variant of coronavirus, there are fears that the Family Court system will be unable to continue moving forward and decrease the workload if they are to follow the work from home guidance. However, guidance from the Lord Chief Justice and Senior President of Tribunals that “hearings should continue to take place in person alongside effective use of video hearings and remote attendance” is a positive sign. The Courts will continue to work in the interests of justice and all those within the legal profession will continue to support the administration of justice.
*latest ONS statistics
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