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Kate Banerjee
Legal Matters Correspondent
11:51 AM 2nd November 2020
family

Vital Changes Required As Remote Hearings Isolate The Most Vulnerable

My concerns about heartbreaking cases - when life-changing decisions affecting vulnerable and often bewildered clients are made at remote hearings - have been re-enforced in a recent study.

The Covid-19 Pandemic has understandably called for remote video and telephone hearings where vulnerable clients are isolated and bereft of any contact or support from solicitors and barristers representing them.

At these hearings momentous decisions are being made about their future on highly sensitive and emotional issues which include babies being removed from their mothers after birth, children being adopted, their contact with parents suspended or stopped - and changes made to where they live.

Prior to the Pandemic, as family lawyers, we could support our clients in a court hearing and intervene if they did not understand the proceedings or wanted to change their mind.

A study commissioned by Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division of the high court, highlights how parents are participating in online proceedings on a phone from home – often without adequate technology or support.

The study says those who needed an interpreter or who had disabilities faced particularly severe challenges, and that 40 per cent of parents did not understand what had happened during the hearing.

This situation is unacceptable. In my experience as a family lawyer, it is impossible to read a situation virtually to sense if my client is, for example, upset, crying, shaking their head or confused.

There is also no privacy or opportunity in the hearings for clients/parents to say they don’t understand what is being said or to change their mind.

Sir Andrew McFarlane is following up concerns raised in the study, and will be working with the judiciary and the professions to develop solutions - a positive development.

In these heart-wrenching situations urgent improvements - such as providing down-time in the hearings for clients to speak to their lawyers to clarify any points - are needed.

More Nightingale Courts - temporary courts set up in July to help tackle the impact of Coronavirus on the justice system - would also be a step in the right direction.

The overarching priority of the hearings is to keep children safe, and our dedicated Children’s team continue to go the extra mile to advise and support our clients - by face-to-face meetings where possible, along with additional meetings and regular telephone calls.

The impact of momentous decisions made on these highly sensitive cases has lifelong consequences for society’s most vulnerable. It is vital that these hearings are fair so they do not feel alone and in despair.