How to Prepare for a Remote Family Court Hearing

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Chris Fairhurst

Partner, Family Law and Divorce Solicitor

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Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, online earings in family proceedings became the default position. As social distancing and safety restrictions relaxed, more Hearings started taking place face-to-face in Court buildings again, but there’s no doubt that remote Hearings are here to stay as well as the traditional ‘in person’ model.

Some people much prefer the more relaxed environment of being away from the Court building, but remote Hearings can bring different challenges. Here are our top tips to be as well prepared as possible for your online Hearing:

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Think about where you will be

Whether a Hearing takes place in a Court building or online, it is still an important event in your case. You need to make sure you can be at your best to understand and hear everything that’s happening. Even if the Hearing is not in a Court building, strict rules of privacy still apply, and you will be asked to confirm at the start of the hearing that you are somewhere private, where you can’t be overheard by others.

You should be somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted and if you have children, you need to be especially careful they cannot hear anything that is going on.

Some Court Hearings are straightforward, but it is not unusual to be daunted by them, especially if your Hearing is significant, for example where you might need to give evidence. If you don’t have somewhere suitable to attend the Hearing, or you are anxious about not being with your legal team, speak with your Solicitor because it might be possible for you to attend the Hearing from their office.

 

Practice your set-up

Think ahead about what device you will use to join the Hearing, and practice how you will have it balanced on the day. Some Hearings are short, but others can last all day (or many days!). Make sure:

  • You can sit comfortably in front of your device
  • Your device is at a height you can see the screen
  • Your camera is at the right height
  • It’s close enough for your microphone to work if you need to speak
  • Your device is fully charged in case you’re left waiting or the Hearing takes longer than you expect
  • You have a plug or power-pack on hand, just in case

 

If you aren’t someone who is used to video call facilities, ask your Solicitor for any guidance you need on how to connect on the day. If you would feel more comfortable doing a ‘trial run’ in joining an online link, just let them know.

 

Have a line of communication with your legal team

When you attend Court in person, it’s easy to talk to your legal team or pass messages to them in the Hearing, but you can’t communicate in that way when you are in different places and all online. 

There may be points in the hearing you feel there is something important you need your Lawyers to know. Although the Court will arrange a short break if something significant comes up, it’s a good idea to make sure you have a separate email chain or use text messages or WhatsApp so you can communicate with them if you need to. 

At the same time, while it’s important that you can reach each other if you need to, it’s also important to let your Lawyers concentrate on representing you, and making sure you follow what’s happening. If you focus too much on exchanging messages, it’s easy to lose track of what is going on and being said.

 

Remember it's still a formal Hearing

Even though the Hearing is not in a formal Courtroom, all of the same formalities still apply. You cannot speak to people during the Hearing or start texting other people and you should act exactly as you would if you were in the same room as the Judge. You should still dress in a respectful and appropriate manner and whilst a drink of water is fine, things such as smoking, vaping or eating are still not okay.

It may be easy to behave slightly differently because you’re in your own home rather than physically at the Hearing, but you should remember that you must conduct yourself as if you were actually there.

 

Know how to keep your privacy

Privacy is often something separated couples or parents feel strongly about. You may not always want your ex-partner to see inside your home. Most online platforms have the option of adding a neutral background, so you can’t see into the room itself. Your Solicitor should be able to help you set this up if you struggle.

If abuse is an issue in your case and you don’t feel comfortable being face-to-face with your ex-partner on screen, it may be possible for arrangements to be made, but you need to raise it in advance to make sure there is the best possible chance of rearranging. Let your Solicitor or the Court know that you don’t feel okay about having to see them onscreen, or them seeing you.

 

Make sure you can access documents

Depending on what type of Hearing it is, you may need to access documents as the Hearing goes on. For example, in many Hearings, the Court and the representatives will have a Court bundle, with all the key documents in it. If you need to access those documents during the Hearing, make sure you can read them at the same time as being on the video call. You can do that with an electronic version on a different device, or by having a hard copy of the papers sent to you in advance.

Make sure you speak to your Solicitor about what will work best well in advance, so you can make sure you have everything you need easily to hand.

 

Be flexible with timings

Although the Courts try as hard as possible to stick to the allocated Hearing time, it’s not always possible. Don’t worry if the Hearing starts late and be prepared to wait around if you need to. Don’t stress if you’ve not had the link to join the Hearing until the morning it takes place as it's very common for the links to only be sent out shortly beforehand.

Where possible, you should try to leave the entire day free, in case your Hearing runs over it’s allocated time. This can happen where your Hearing starts late due to other delays, or there are technical difficulties which needs to be resolved before the Hearing can continue.

 

Don’t panic if you lose connection

It’s very common for someone to have a few problems during the Hearing, and the Court staff and the Lawyers are used to dealing with it. If you can’t hear, just let someone know. If you drop off the connection, don’t panic, just re-join as quickly as you can.

Usually, people will have realised and will wait for you to come back in. If you can’t re-connect, send someone else in the hearing a message so they can update the Court.

 

Have snacks prepared

You could be sat in front of your computer or phone for most of the day if it’s a long Hearing. Don’t assume that because you are at home, you can get food and drinks whenever you fancy. The Court will still only have short breaks at specified places.

Make sure you have plenty of water easy to hand without moving. It’s not considered acceptable to eat during the Hearing, in the same way you're not allowed to eat in the Courtroom. Any breaks might be quite short so have some snacks that are quick and easy to hand to give yourself a boost if you need one.

Hearings can be very draining, and a quick energy boost can be very welcome. Don’t assume you will have time to prepare anything substantial just because the kitchen may be next door!

 

Get to know the ‘rules’

Online Hearings work best if everyone uses the technology right. The Court will usually expect you to have your video on, unless you have been excused, but sometimes you may be asked to turn your video off so the Judge can only see certain people, or because the connection is poor.

You will usually be asked to make sure you’re on mute unless you are being asked to speak. You should only speak when you are meant to, just as you would in a Courtroom. Let others know if you see that someone else has dropped off the Hearing. Remember to make sure you are on mute any time you need to have a private discussion with your Lawyers, for example, during breaks.

Our Family Law Solicitors have attended a lot of online Hearings in the pandemic. If you’re concerned about any part of the Hearing process, just let your legal team know and we can help you.

 

Do Remote Hearings Work Well?

Some cases work very well in a remote court Hearing environment, such as simple procedural Hearings where only judges and advocates are present. It’s worth noting that remote Hearings are a perfect solution for helping to clear backlogs of Hearings, as more can be fit into each day.

On the other hand, remote Hearings aren’t without issues. When it comes to more complex cases such as contested family hearings. It is also reported that some people are better represented in an in-person Hearing, including those with disabilities, learning difficulties, and mental health problems.

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References

Courts and Tribunals Judiciary. (n.d.). Practice Guidance on Remote Observation of Hearings – New Powers. [online] Available at: https://www.judiciary.uk/guidance-and-resources/practice-guidance-on-remote-observation-of-hearings-new-powers/

@thelawsociety. (2021). The Law Society. [online] Available at: https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/campaigns/court-reform/whats-changing/remote-hearings

Chris Fairhurst Profile Picture

Chris Fairhurst

Partner, Family Law and Divorce Solicitor

Areas of Expertise:
Family Law

Chris is a Partner and Family Law Solicitor based in Northwest England, with more than 25 years’ experience in this area of law.

His areas of expertise include, but not limited to, dealing with complex financial arrangements in separation and divorce and relationship breakdowns for clients in England, Wales and living overseas often involving high value cases including multiple assets often involving pension funds of several million pounds.

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