The Prime Minister’s announcement that all bar essential contact was to be avoided and that where possible people should work from home has caused both lawyers and people going through divorce to ask whether the courts are open for business.
Approximately 45% of courts are open but the number of hearings being conducted there is greatly reduced. About one third of courts are staffed but not open to the public (this is to protect the staff that are working there) and only around 20% are completely closed.
The Court Service, like any other public sector, is not immune from COVID-19. Social distancing measures have been put in place, staff are working remotely from home where possible and also a proportion of court staff are off work either because they are sick, self-isolating or shielding.
The impact of this means that there are fewer staff members to answer telephone queries, to deal with issuing paperwork and progressing cases. However, the work of the family court still goes on.
About 40% of divorces are now issued ‘online’. The Court Service is keen to increase that proportion. The advantage of the ‘online’ service is that it is largely automated and when steps require consideration by court staff those steps can be undertaken ‘remotely’ and therefore the online model is not so susceptible to social distancing and staff fluctuations. Birketts use the online platform for issuing divorce proceedings where ever possible and have not noticed any reduction in the speed in which a case passes through the system. Indeed, the online platform is much quicker than the traditional ‘paper based’ process.
Birketts have been informed by HMCTS that Decree Nisi’s are being pronounced as usual (even though there had been some disquiet voiced amongst the legal community that as Decree Nisi’s should be pronounced in ‘open’ court it would be impossible to deal with them due to social distancing and public gatherings being banned). The reality is that it is extremely rare for anybody to attend court on pronouncement of Decree Nisi and they are proceeding in the usual way. Should any party wish to be heard on a Decree Nisi, the Court will make appropriate arrangements.
The Court Service had piloted issuing children proceedings online. The initial pilot was not open to lawyers. However, since the advent of COVID-19 lawyers have been able to issue children proceedings online. This is effective both for clients and the Court Service. Children hearings are still taking place but initial hearings will generally take place by either telephone hearing or video hearing during the period of ‘lockdown’.
Urgent cases will still be given priority and heard in Court, if required.
Where a divorcing couple has reached agreement on how to deal with financial matters, lawyers are able to access an online platform to submit Consent Orders to a district judge for approval. Previously, this could only be dealt with ‘on paper’, the process was fraught with administrative delays and as a result it was quite common for a Consent Order to take about five months to receive judicial approval. Information provided this week from the Divorce Unit at Bury St Edmunds suggests that this still remains the case locally. This should be compared and contrasted with the online platform where this week Consent Orders were reported in being ‘turned around’ within four working days.
The answer is clear. The family courts are open for business. However, the way in which they are transacting business is different. The numbers of staff currently working in the court is reduced and this, in line with many other organisations, has led to additional delays. However, there does not appear to be delay in the online process. COVID-19 has hastened the roll out of online processes, which, in turn, could lead to less delay in the future.
Birketts Family Team remain open for business. Although we are largely working from home and observing social distancing we are still contactable by telephone and email. We will work with you to find the best way forward for you and your family. For advice or information on how Birketts can help you deal with online family court proceedings please contact Juliet Harvey or any other member of the Family Team.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at April 2020.