What does COVID-19 mean for family law? BLM partner Grainne Fahy explains
What does COVID-19 mean for family law? Are we witnessing a new normal?
Family courts are much like airports in that everybody is on a journey - the main focus being getting to where you need to be, children at the centre, high security and becoming emptier by the day.
Well for one thing, hand sanitizer (for those lucky enough to have any) is now allowed through the doors of the courts when previously it was banned – a seemingly minor change, but could this signal a significant change in the way we operate going forward? Are we witnessing the new normal? And how will this benefit you?
Social-distancing and social 'lock-down' and family lawyers
Certainly, as family lawyers with the Government’s social distancing policy and now ‘lock-down’ means that we have to become much more creative about how we conduct client meetings, using tried and tested technologies e.g. secure video conferencing (usually the preserve of those living overseas or those unable to come into meet us. It is unusual for family lawyers not to have at least the first appointment “face to face” with those who can come into the office. Family lawyers are social beings after all! We like seeing people in person to get a real feel for who they are, and build rapport from the get-go. However, maybe “face to face” meetings will be as obsolete as paper files after this pandemic is eventually contained? And in reality would that be such a bad thing?
Could COVID-19 bring some greater efficiencies to family law?
This could produce savings all around, not to mention greater efficiencies. There could be savings for business owners too, who no longer have to pay premiums for large meeting rooms. With all employers now having to embrace working from home entirely – it could become (post-pandemic) the new norm? However, I must say that as I write this whilst nearing the end of my “self-isolation” with my whole family (this is day 11 – but who’s counting?), the thought of the Tube, and the getting back to my daily routine with my colleagues and clients did all sound rather appealing, until the recent bombshell - 3 weeks’ total lock-down.
Family lawyers putting creativity into action as a result of COVID-19
That said, we cannot deny that the court system, much like the planet, was and is on its knees. As family lawyers, we were already trying to be creative in terms of how to progress cases and avoid the court delays that have become so much more difficult after the demise of Legal Aid. We now regularly engage in Early Neutral Evaluation (commonly known as private FDRs), arbitration and so forth.
COVID-19 new measures announced by HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the Ministry Of Justice
And now, with COVID-19, these are becoming increasingly popular and so I am going to try to find the positives. The fish are back in the canals in Venice, the birds are singing in Wuhan and the dreaded family court list will hopefully be easier to manage in a much more efficient way now that these measures have been announced by HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the Ministry Of Justice:
- The Civil & Family Law Courts & Tribunals are working to minimise risk to their staff and users of their services, meaning that arrangements are being put in place to use telephone, video or other technology to continue as many hearings as possible remotely – any physical hearings will follow social distancing guidance
- All new Jury Trials in the Crown Court have been paused temporarily, and most small claims, fast track and multi-track cases listed for April 2020 will be vacated
- Any changes to individual hearings will be notified to Claimants or Defendants by e-mail or telephone
- In cases where Parties to a case or their advisers are self-isolating in line with NHS advice, are confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 or have related childcare responsibilities, fees for applications to adjourn civil or family hearings may be waived on provision of medical and other evidence, provided that the hearing could not be conducted remotely – HMCTS also suggests that parties “use the available time to explore the possibility for compromise before agreeing to requesting to adjourn”, and any adjournment should be applied for as soon as possible otherwise
- Each Court will be producing its own guidance in due Court, and we’ll update you when it becomes available
Benefits of new measures by HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the Ministry Of Justice to family lawyers
There are clear benefits to this new approach - No sitting at court all day, waiting for a Judge to become available, no travel time or cost for going to court or conferences, maybe even more efficiency as we don’t tend to linger as much online as we do in person.
Whilst this is no doubt currently driven by necessity, this might become the new normal. When this is all over, our constantly evolving steps and replacements will hopefully bring a more cost efficient family law offering to those who need it.
COVID-19 - considerations for reaching financial settlements in family law matters
So what are the considerations for reaching financial settlements at this time, especially where stocks and shares, business interests and property are concerned? Is it even wise to proceed at this time or conversely, is it better to look at the potential of what the bigger picture might be and get it done, to stop haggling over something which might not even be there to haggle over when this is all over. Is your negotiation power strengthened or weakened? The answer is that each situation is completely different and if this resonates you need to seek advice as soon as possible.
COVID-19 - considerations for reaching child arrangements in family law matters
What about child arrangements? Undeniably as this unfolds it may become more much more difficult for children to spend time with each parent and with Friday’s school closures, it may be imperative that both parents play an even more active role in helping with home schooling and the like. How will parents comply with court orders that require overseas travel given most countries have instigated a travel ban? Applications to the court for temporary or permanent removal from the jurisdiction will reduce dramatically, if not disappear entirely for the meantime, as a result of COVID-19.
COVID-19 impacts felt right across family law - potential for dips, delays and spikes
Will child abduction have a similar dip? What of cancelled fertility treatments or those intended parents with an overseas surrogate? For those who are stuck in relationships where domestic abuse is an issue? Divorce rates? Will they spike as predicted?
Could COVID-19 measures bring families together?
Will self-isolation, quarantine and now total lock-down signal the beginning of the end for many? Or will people in these hard times come together and realise that their situation isn’t that bad? Or decide that they want to stay together? The ramifications for family law, like every other aspect of all of our lives, are almost endless.
COVID-19 and professional legal advice
It's imperative that you get legal advice if any of these issues affect you or your family. So, do reach out to the family law team here at BLM as we can deploy tech to ensure that we can “meet” and discuss your specific circumstances.
COVID-19 - stay safe
COVID-19 news and measures are changing daily and we’re all adapting to this new normal, but we will get through this. We always find a way. Business not quite as usual…but close enough. For now, stay safe. And stay in touch with your family, and of course colleagues and loved ones (albeit it remotely). For these are strange times indeed.
Disclaimer: This document does not present a complete or comprehensive statement of the law, nor does it constitute legal advice. It is intended only to highlight issues that may be of interest to customers of BLM. Specialist legal advice should always be sought in any particular case.