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President of the Family Division welcomes Nuffield report into effectiveness of remote hearings during COVID-19

The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, has welcomed research published by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) in the effectiveness of remote hearings used in the family justice system since the COVID-19 crisis began.

Sir Andrew asked the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory to carry out the study three weeks ago to examine views after some hearings during the crisis have moved to be held online rather than face to face. The NFJO is an independent organisation which is committed to improving life for children and families by putting data and evidence at the heart of the family justice system.

Submissions were gathered from families with children and all professionals working in the family justice system, including judges, barristers, solicitors, Cafcass workers, court staff and social workers.  Input was gathered via virtual meetings and events and includes responses from over 1,000 participants.

The President states that this important piece of independent research is vital after what has been, over only seven weeks, a very fast-moving programme of change for family justice.  The President recognises that the report highlights a balance of viewpoints. There are some clear advantages to digital/remote working that can be built upon but also some worrying issues highlighted that can be addressed.  The President recognises that the current crisis has placed additional stresses on the Family Justice System and wants to ensure that these experiences are well understood. The research highlights the extraordinary work of Family Judges and the wider Family Justice community in these challenging times.

The respondents to the consultation were evenly balanced in terms of their overall positive and negative reactions to remote hearings. Most thought that remote hearings were justified for certain cases in the current circumstances; and some felt that this way of working could continue for certain cases in the future.

Significant concerns were raised about the fairness of remote hearings in certain cases and circumstances, and there were some worrying descriptions of the way some cases had been conducted to date. These concerns chiefly related to cases where not having face-to-face contact made it difficult to read reactions and communicate in a humane and sensitive way, the difficulty of ensuring a party's full participation in a remote hearing, and issues of confidentiality and privacy. Specific concerns were commonly raised in relation to specific groups: such as parties in cases involving domestic abuse, parties with a disability or cognitive impairment or where an intermediary or interpreter is required.

Respondents reported wide variation in the kind of cases that are currently going ahead or being adjourned and in the level of support available for parties, suggesting that some national guidance would be valuable.

A wide range of different telephone and video platforms are currently being used to conduct remote hearings. Telephone hearings are more common, but video hearings were generally felt to be more effective.

Concerns were raised about access to appropriate technology (for parties and professionals), the lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities in terms of setting up and supporting the administration of hearings, the extent of professionals' technological capabilities, and the limited IT support and training.

Remote working was reported to be having a negative impact on professionals' health and well-being, although for some professionals it has meant working in a more efficient way.

Many examples of emerging good practice, and suggestions for future practice, were provided. These largely related to the management of the process—the preparation and running of hearings, and making the most effective use of technology. Respondents to the consultation also gave feedback as to the types of cases that they felt should or should not be heard using telephone and video technology.

Further work is required to ensure that the impact of remote hearings during the pandemic can been researched effectively in order to inform future practice.

For the full NFJO review, click here. For the latest View from The President's Chambers, click here.