COVID-19: How Have Family Law Services Adapted?

As we emerge from more than 100 days of lockdown, I thought it might be interesting to look back over how much things have changed – not only in the way that we work within the Napthens family team but in how the Courts are now approaching various family matters.

Like many businesses, Napthens people were almost entirely office-based with only occasional home working. There are a number of good reasons for this, such as providing a convenient location for clients to visit, plus the practicalities of dealing with a lot of paper documents.

Despite those challenges, by the time of the official lockdown on the 23rd March, many Napthens staff had already been working remotely for a week. We have always invested heavily in technology, so secure access to our IT systems was already in place and just as importantly, we were able to redirect incoming calls so clients calling office numbers would be put through to the right person.

Whilst it’s fair to say that we have all missed our colleagues, we are able to hold virtual team meetings and can also use Microsoft Teams or Zoom for meetings with our clients.  When dealing with family matters it is always important to build and maintain trust and compassion with our clients, and we have found video calls are much closer to a face-to-face meeting than a regular telephone call.

The Court itself has undergone many changes. Pre-lockdown all family hearings were held in person within the Court building – there were no remote hearings at all. To add to that, the majority of documentation supplied to the court had to be physical rather than electronic. So, for the Courts to stand any chance of hearing cases during lockdown, significant changes were needed and had to be delivered in record time. Within a week, Hearings were taking place over video or telephone.  Today, 90% of Hearings are being heard remotely, with only certain types of cases requiring people to attend in person and documentation for use during Hearings is now entirely electronic.

This has been a massive shift for the Court, which under normal circumstances may have taken many months or even years, to implement. Although largely successful, there have been some issues and the transition has created a backlog. To deal with the backlog, the Court is prioritising cases, so Hearings related to domestic abuse or children at risk of harm always come first.

Due to the delays, there are opportunities for us to approach matters in a different way. For example, there is now more of an opportunity to undertake Alternative Dispute Resolution and private Financial Dispute Resolution appointments have been arranged whereby the parties can choose to privately instruct a Judge to hear their matter.

Whilst it is expected that the Court will only return to some form of normality by Spring 2021, this should not discourage anyone from pursuing an application.  In fact, there are various ways that solicitors can assist in resolving disputes without necessarily relying upon the Court process.  For example, we can assist in arranging mediation with an independent third-party mediator. We can also undertake a collaborative approach to resolve disputes where both parties make a decision early on to avoid the Court process, or can  seek to resolve matters with our input without necessarily involving protracted Court proceedings.

The key message to anyone considering divorce at this time is to seek help from a professional adviser sooner rather than later.  We can provide the personal, face to face support you need, albeit virtually, and will give you the clarity you need to understand the options available to you – whether that involves the Court process or not.

Contact me or a member of Napthens Family team if you would like to arrange a consultation.