What's changed for us? Work levels are the same, if not higher. You will have read of the concerns for vulnerable families and children at risk who appear to be in greater numbers during lockdown. We have also had queries from separated parents needing advice about arrangements for children to spend time with the other parent, sharing concerns about whether children can pass between families during the lockdown (they can) and issues of infection risk in the other home. Many parents now have to use alternative means of contact to "see" their children.
We can't meet clients face-to-face but we use Zoom, Skype and Whatsapp where we can. This is not ideal for our clients with mental health and learning difficulties or for children, but it is the best we can do at this time.
We are now doing court hearings from our desks, either on the phone or on a video platform. We gain back the two to three hours travelling to court hearings but we miss meeting our colleagues and contacts with whom we have worked for many years and who we see regularly at court.
There are concerns about phone or video hearings. Some of the connections are not great and it takes a while to set up, and often people do drop out of the call and we have to wait for them to return! There is, however, no real substitute for being with our clients in court and for the hearings to take place in person, particularly when it comes to hearings with cross examination and contested evidence. Taking instructions and supporting our clients when decisions are made is a crucial part of our role, especially given the complexity and seriousness of the decisions being made about their families. It's also a problem for some clients who don't have the appropriate devices, sufficient broadband etc. We have to consider access to justice and what that means in a whole different light.
There are of course hearings that simply must take place. The Family Court is working hard to decide what cases must be heard by which method, and what can wait. Waiting is not ideal for many children, of course. The court's guidance so far is that final hearings with contested evidence may not be suitable for remote platforms but the picture is evolving all the time and the Family Court is now considering opening up the physical court again.
For now, we endure the pitfalls of phone and video hearings. So far these include forgetting to mute the phone and getting told to stop typing as it causes noise on the line! And then starting to talk without undoing the mute button so you have to repeat what you have just said! It is also important to remember to wear a jacket and plain top if on a video call rather than your t-shirt from your last holiday. Or your pyjamas. Oh, and always make sure your backdrop looks vaguely suitable!