Four in ten parents who have been involved in a remote family hearing say they did not understand it, a major study has discovered.
Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division, described the finding in the latest report from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory (NFJO) as “worrying”.
The report was a follow-up to earlier NFJO research commissioned by Sir Andrew and published in May, which found that children were witnessing “distressed” parents during remote hearings.
The scale of last month’s survey for Remote hearings in the family justice system: reflections and experiences increased to over 1,300 respondents. Most were magistrates, judges, lawyers and and Cafcass staff, with parents or relatives making up 10%.
Two-thirds (66%) of parents said they believed their case had not been dealt with well remotely, with 40% recounting that they did not understand their remote hearing – either partly or at all.
Just 12% said they did not have “any worries or concerns about the way the case was dealt with”.
One barrister commented: “I maintain the view that it feels completely wrong to remotely conduct an interim removal hearing or final hearing in a case where adoption is the care plan.
“I have also had numerous hearings where it hasn’t been possible for parents to hear/engage in what’s been going on.
“They often don’t want the delay of adjourned hearings so tell you to keep going without them, but it’s at the expense of them properly understanding what’s happening and being able to give proper instructions.”
Researchers said many professionals and parents expressed concern about the difficulty of creating an empathetic and supportive environment when hearings were held remotely.
“There was particular concern about hearings where interim orders are made to remove babies shortly after birth, which it would seem still mainly happen with the mother joining by a phone from the hospital.”
One judge said: “There is nothing fair about a remote hearing which requires you to remove a new-born baby from its mother. Remote hearings do not enable you to show empathy.”
The legal professionals who responded to the survey said all the parties were legally represented in only a fifth (21%) of their cases. Both mother and father were not represented in almost 60% of cases involving litigants in person (LiPs) and in a substantial minority of cases were not provided with support to access technology.
At the same time, lawyers, judges and other professionals were generally upbeat that things were working “more smoothly” now, with only 14% disagreeing. Some 78% felt that fairness and justice were achieved in their cases most or all of the time.
On court technology, researchers said: “Most continuing technical problems related to connectivity, and common issues included difficulty in hearing people, difficulty seeing people, and difficulty identifying who is speaking.
“Lay parties continue to have difficulty accessing hearings because they lack the hardware, connectivity or skills to navigate the software.”
Sir Andrew said it was encouraging that most professionals felt the courts were now working more effectively and that there were even some benefits for all to working remotely.
“However, the report highlights a number of areas of concern that need to be addressed. There are clearly circumstances where more support is required to enable parents and young people to take part in remote hearings effectively.
“It is worrying that some parents report that they have not fully understood, or felt a part of, the remote court process.
“Whilst technology is improving, there is clearly still work to be done to improve the provision of family justice via remote means.”
Lisa Harker, director of the NFJO, added: “We cannot put the lives of thousands of children and families on hold while we hope for face-to-face practice to resume, and it’s clear that judges, barristers and other professionals have put in enormous personal effort to keep the system moving during very challenging times.
“But equally life-changing decisions must be reached fairly for all involved.”