Remote Court Hearings: “Horribly Cruel” or More Efficient?


5 June 2020

By Farhad Islam

Since the covid-19 pandemic broke earlier this year, the number of virtual hearings held in England and Wales has increased five-fold.

Some family law practitioners are saying video and phone calls are not suitable for some sensitive cases. Charitable groups and advocates also highlighted Court hearings held remotely in lockdown disadvantage vulnerable people and should not be used longer term.

Concerns have been raised over:

  • urgent orders to remove newborn babies from their mother in hospital, which had to be made over the telephone because of lockdown restrictions.  A judge said "to have a two-day-old baby removed in such circumstances did not feel morally or ethically right", while a barrister said it felt "horribly cruel".
  • a separate hearing where a party was disconnected and the judge accidentally dialled a stranger into the call.
  • "Luckily nothing highly confidential was being discussed and it was only a minute or two but it's an example of where things go wrong," she said.
  • A lack of access to the internet, suitable technology or private space. Remote hearings could be a "huge barrier" for people, particularly those with limited internet access or data on your phone, which could mean that you're paying to access justice.

Voices not being heard where people are more comfortable speaking face to face conversations than using technology or where it is going to help everyone to get their heads together and talk about the case

We have had our own experience of dealing with court hearings remotely, here in Gepp's family law team. In one case I dealt with about children, it was difficult to have a private conversation with my client whilst the other side were on the same conference call but the court did its best to give us time to have a private conversation in the limited time allocated for the hearing. In that case, a face-to-face hearing would have been better because we would have been able to have a private conversation in the court building.

But remote hearings do not have to be such a negative experience.

Domestic abuse cases are among those heard in remote family court hearings and some domestic abuse victims found remote hearings less "daunting" than having to face their perpetrator in court

In other, financial, cases I have dealt with, where the hearing was only ever going to be an administrative matter, a remote telephone hearing has worked well and saved everyone the time and expense of travelling to court.

In one case, where it was clear that the parties' evidence could only properly be tested at a face-to-face hearing, the judge made an order for a face-to-face hearing to take place, some months ahead in the hope that the Covid 19 public health restrictions will have been sufficiently loosened or lifted by then for the hearing to go ahead.

Looking ahead, I can see that there is a place for remote hearings but only when it is known that the hearing is going to be purely administrative. This could save, not only the courts but the parties concerned, time and money.

However, where there are sensitive or difficult issues to be considered, a court hearing in person is going to offer the opportunity for negotiation and communication with the other side, or a "live" hearing is the only real way to test each party's evidence, there is no substitute for a face-to-face hearing.

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This is not legal advice: it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.