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A Practical Guide to Remote FDRs: Family Finance

Nicola Frost, Tonia Clark and Amy Beddis, Barristers of 3PB, report on a mock remote Financial Dispute Resolution hearing recently presented in Bristol.

Nicola Frost
, Tonia Clark and Amy Beddis, Barristers of 3PB

A top commercial barrister and his clever, well-educated wife, who gave up her promising career as a criminal barrister to look after their children, are going through a divorce. The children are at private school. The wife seeks maintenance, the husband says that she lives beyond her means and has an earning capacity. There are competing housing needs and a post-separation inheritance. All mixed up with a salacious affair between the wife and a prominent investment banker.

These facts may sound like the perfect background to a legal drama, but these are the basis of a mock remote Financial Dispute Resolution (FDR) hearing. On Thursday 14th May 2020, leading barristers from 3PB, Albion Chambers and St John's Chambers and eminent Bristol solicitors, from Burges Salmon and Clarke Willmott, presented a practical and informative remote (video) FDR, which was watched by almost 200 judges, barristers and solicitors, across the Western Circuit and beyond.

The mock remote FDR was initiated by District Judge Stephanie Cope, who is set to lead the new Financial Remedies Court in Bristol. District Judge Cope first suggested the idea at the open (remote) committee meeting of the Bristol Financial Remedies User Group (FRUG), an initiative led by District Judge Myles Watkins, who has been actively involved in the initiative. The project is wholly supported by the Bristol Designated Family Judge, HHJ Stephen Wildblood QC.

The current Covid-19 situation has caused chaos and disrupted every walk of life; the courts are no exception. Suddenly, lawyers, often known for their reluctance to adopt technology, have been thrown into a world of remote hearings, whether by Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams or BT. Hearings that the court would not previously have held remotely are now regularly being listed as such. The FDR appointment is one such type of hearing.

Practitioners have had to adapt swiftly and have dealt with the challenge well but it was recognised that not everyone would be getting the most out of their experience, which is how the mock remote FDR came to be.

The aim of the remote hearing was to demonstrate the ways in which technology can be used and that parties and their representatives need not be physically present in the court building to effectively take part in proceedings. Between them the team of 12 willing volunteers identified key learning points and produced an FDR scenario with a script, backed up by technological expertise.

District Judge Myles Watkins, who advised on technology and was responsible for producing the broadcast, welcomed viewers and highlighted some essential reading, namely  the Remote Access Family Court Guidance, Principles for Remote Advocacy and the Virtual Workspace Rules [also see Andrew King's blog post COVID-19 and Remote Court Arrangements: 30 tips for dealing with Virtual Hearings]. The remote court hearing was preceded by solicitors' tips and pointers on bundle preparation and exploring alternative means of communication, as between clients and their respective legal teams during the hearing.

The mock FDR itself commenced in the courtroom with the judge setting out the clear guidance on remote hearings, followed by submissions from the parties' counsel. The court was asked to provide an indication on two issues, which remained in dispute between the parties. Reported issues from remote hearings in practice were taken into account. Viewers were able to watch the two sides move from the courtroom into breakout rooms, where they saw how parties might communicate with their legal team and, indeed, how negotiations could take place using media other than video conferencing facilities. After negotiations, the attendees saw the return into court. Each stage was carefully demonstrated, including how to use e-bundles, screen sharing, where a document was missing, including live document manipulation, and more basic, but essential, functions such as how to make the judge the host and how to lock the hearing.

The mock FDR was very well received and offered a true insight into the new way of working, both for the judiciary and practitioners alike. The chat function was very active during the broadcast. One attendee commented, "I'm already impressed with this and have already learnt something new and very useful," at only 23 minutes in. Following the hearing there was a brief Q and A session, adding further benefit.

The practical guide to a court-based FDR was attended by the Family Division Liaison Judge for the Western Circuit, Mrs Justice Roberts, who commented, "this has been an excellent initiative and demonstrates just what is achievable in the context of a remote hearing".

The Bristol practitioners worked well together to produce a helpful insight into the remote FDR process, which will no doubt further improve clients' access to justice.

The team of 12 were: DJ Stephanie Cope, HHJ Stephen Wildblood QC, DJ Myles Watkins, Charles Hyde QC of Albion Chambers, Deborah Dinan-Hayward of Albion Chambers, Amy Beddis of 3PB, Alison Hawes of Burges Salmon, Zoe Saunders of St John's Chambers, Gareth Schofield of Clarke Willmott, Nicholas Sproull of Albion Chambers, Tonia Clark of 3PB and Nicola Frost of 3PB.