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Re ML (Use of Skype Technology) [2013] EWHC 2091 (Fam)

Judgment explaining the circumstances in which Skype and related technologies might be usefully employed in family proceedings involving witnesses in remote locations.

Neutral Citation Number:  [2013] EWHC 2091 (Fam)
IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE
FAMILY DIVISION

Date: 18 July 2013

Before :

THE HONOURABLE MR JUSTICE PETER JACKSON
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Re ML (Use of Skype Technology)
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Helen Broughton (Morecrofts Solicitors) for the Applicants
Anne Thompson
(instructed by LHT Solicitors) for the Guardian
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JUDGMENT
Mr Justice Peter Jackson:

1. This judgment records the use made of Skype technology in two recent cases.

2. Last week I made an adoption order in relation to an 11-year-old girl of Tibetan Mongolian origin who had been brought to this country from Nepal by a British couple.  In a judgment given at the time, I explained why an adoption order was appropriate despite the restrictions that exist in relation to adoptions from Nepal.

3. Of note was the manner in which the parents' consent to the adoption was obtained and recorded. 

4. The child's parents, who have a number of other children and are now separated, live in poverty.  They were unable to care for their daughter, who went to live with her grandparents at the age of three, where she was mistreated.  The adopters, who have business in Nepal, found her on the street in 2007 in a pitiful state.  They arranged for her to be looked after and educated, but difficulties continued and in January 2011, they brought her to England on an education visa.  Since arriving here she has thrived and in due course an adoption application was issued.  All the appropriate procedural steps were taken, including notification of the Home Office.

5. The adopters stated that they had brought the child to England with the blessing of her parents, with whom they had had some contact over the years.  Mindful of cases in which enquiries have shown that children have been brought to this country with false histories, I directed that the parents should be contacted and offered the opportunity to give their consent.

6. CAFCASS understandably takes the view that it is not possible for a Children's Guardian to make these enquiries abroad.  The parties' efforts to advance matters through international social services (CFAB) or via the British Embassy in Kathmandu came to nothing.

7. The solution in this case was that the Guardian's solicitor engaged a local lawyer who speaks the parents' language.  Arrangements were made for the English court documents to be translated and sent to the lawyer.  The parents separately attended at the lawyer's office, where interviews took place.  These were viewed from England by the Guardian and the child's solicitor on Skype.  They were able to witness in real time the parents signing the consent forms by thumbprint, and photographs of the event were taken.  Had questions by the Guardian to the parents been necessary, they could have been asked.

8. This process satisfied me that the parents had freely and unconditionally consented to the adoption, and also that they had received no financial inducement.  It has also provided a record for the child of her parents' participation and support for an adoption that she very much wants.

9. The second example of the use of Skype is an application for relocation to Colombia: see [2013] EWHC 1295 (Fam) for the  judgment in that matter.

10. Evidence was required from a witness in Colombia.  She lived in a remote location with few options available to her in respect of video conference facilities.  The local university could not assist so a request was made by the applicant's solicitors to take evidence by Skype. 

11. I refused this application, as I have done in other circumstances.  The technology can be very effective for informal use, but does not lend itself to the court environment.  There are problems in everyone seeing and hearing the picture and in the evidence being recorded.  There are also issues about security.  I would not be willing to use this method if there was any alternative.

12. The difficulties were resolved by the solicitors for the applicant (Goodman Ray) identifying a process (in that case operated by a company called eyenetwork.com), who provide a bridge between the witness using Skype and the ISDN system in place at court.  This technology mediates between the systems and provides some protection against hacking.  The Skype-user is provided with a download allowing them to connect to the court's system. In addition to the program, the witness requires a PC, an internet connection, a webcam, a microphone and a mobile or landline number with which to contact the company for instructions via a multilingual team. 

13. The quality of the link was adequate.  The witness gave evidence for an hour at a cost of about £150.  The cost of a full ISDN link would have been in the region of £1200.  There is clearly the possibility of using this system in hearings involving witnesses in remote locations and in reducing the high international costs associated with ISDN.
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