How are the courts dealing with covid-19?

Coronavirus has had a big impact on the court system. If you have an ongoing family law case, or are getting divorced, or need to apply to court, this will affect you.

The courts were already struggling with the amount of work, particularly paperwork. Straightforward divorces and written applications for order were taking months longer than in the past. Typically a divorce which used to take around 6 months was taking 10 months, and written applications were taking 4 or 5 months.

Coronvairus means that judges are working from home, there are no face to face family court hearings, and there are far fewer staff dealing with paperwork.

For existing cases, there will be more delay in dealing with paperwork and this will continue, and the backlog is increasing rather than improving. That’s just how things are when we are all trying to work from home.

Perhaps the biggest impact is people needing to issue new applications. The court has prioritised cases. Generally this means dealing with care cases where children are at risk of harm, or domestic abuse injunction cases.

This means that standard cases about arrangements for children – i.e if you need to apply to court to see your children – are not a priority. There are a large number of these cases – lockdown has put stress on families and created situations where contact isn’t happening – typically one parent will say it isn’t safe (because of risks of covid-19) and the other parent will say covid-19 is being used as a false reason to restrict contact. These applications are piling up and will be dealt with when the court is ready. The best approach is to email applications rather than sending them in by post. In our experience the first hearing will be a telephone call with the Court Legal Advisor. There won’t be a judge/magistrate involved in that call. It is just a chance for the court to signpost the case forwards if there is no prospect of an agreement. This means the procedure is even slower and more protracted than before.

Most financial cases (divorce settlements) are dealt with as telephone conferences using BT Meet Me. The main disadvantage is that you don’t have the time and space to meet and discuss things and to try and reach an agreement. This is incredibly important – the vast majority of court cases settle in this way. Also its harder for judges as they don’t have the benefit of seeing everyone face to face and the stilted nature of telephone conferences is limiting.

Final hearings are being dealt with by webcam, usually Skype for Business (which is outdated but that’s  the only software on all of the court computers) and again this is harder than face to face hearings. It’s less immediate, harder to co-ordinate, it doesn’t flow in the same way. However this new way of working is forcing people to try and resolve things in a different way so this is the upside. We have seen more co-operation between people who recognise that everyone needs to pull together to help the system work.

These problems won’t clear up when lockdown is lifted. The backlog is growing. Some court rooms are not large and it won’t be possible to have “socially distanced” hearings. The changes are here for the medium term at least.

By far the best approach is to avoid the court if possible. There are other options including mediation, arbitration or private FDR’s. All of these options can be set up almost immediately and tailored to meet your needs. More than ever, this is the time for what we used to call Alternative Dispute Resolution to become the norm.

Also there is already a huge amount of guidance out there. Have a look here at the Resolution website and here at the Gov.uk website.

Peter