3rd Mar 2021

COVID and the courts - a family law update

Already under immense strain, the pressures placed on the English Family Court System since the first lockdown began have been considerable. Head of family law, Danielle Day takes a looks at impact of a year of restrictions.

Courts go digital

Long before the UK was hit by the Coronavirus pandemic, there were plans in place to improve the court system – to move to a digital platform and reduce the average length of cases. Individuals were strongly encouraged to resolve their disputes out of court by way of alternative dispute resolution methods, saving both time and money.

Berwins was one of the few solicitors in the area to be part of the digitalisation pilot scheme which formed a key part of this, enabling us to offer a faster service for divorce and financial matters to our clients. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the pilot scheme was forced to expand to all individuals and professionals, though the online system had not been perfected and the portal struggled to cope with the demand.

The courts were forced into an entirely digital world. Court hearings began to be held remotely by telephone to begin with and then later moved to video hearings. It’s fair to say there were teething troubles – we had numerous hearings being adjourned at very short notice. There was also a move to paperless bundles, which was something unheard of in the family courts. The transition for Berwins, who had embraced paperless systems several years ago, was smooth as we had systems already in place and we quickly adapted to the changing environment.

As the pandemic progresses and we now find ourselves in lockdown three, the court system has improved but it is still far from slick. The latest data, released in December 2020, shows the family court system remains under immense pressure and the average length of cases remain high. 

Divorce timescales remain long

Divorce is one of the few areas that have actually seen an improvement in timescales, this is largely due to the online digitalisation. Despite this, however the number of weeks to complete, it remains high. On average it takes 29 weeks to reach Decree Nisi and a further 24 weeks to reach Decree Absolute, talking the process to just over a year.

Financial remedy cases (both contested and non-contested) have increased by 4% since 2019. The number of cases concluded have reduced by 8% compared to the same period in 2019. 

Alternative ways of resolving disputes, such as Collaborative Family Law can have a positive impact on reducing the length of a case, but court pressures do still mean that delays are an issue for many separating couples.

Children cases on the rise

With ambiguity around the COVID-19 rules and many parents interpreting the rules in different ways, children cases have risen by 8% compared to 2019. This is the highest level seen since 2013 and the number of cases concluded have decreased by 22%. On average the length of a children matter (private) is 34 weeks.

That accounts for a substantial number of young people trapped in testing situations. Resolution here can be highly emotional, though one of the most effective ways to prevent children from falling into this situation is for parents to maintain communication and to keep that contact as amicable as possible.

Worrying domestic violence trends

One of the most worrying trends of the pandemic is that, amidst lockdown, Domestic Violence cases have increased by some 26% compared to 2019. What is more, this trend is expected to rise as we go through 2021. Some of these applications, due to their nature, are being heard in person at socially distanced hearings. However, the majority remain on an online platform.

Whichever medium is used, it is essential that individuals in this most difficult position receive the support and access to justice they so dearly need.  

Overcoming the backlog

As we continue to ride and recover from the impact of COVID-19, it is expected that all volumes of cases will exceed the pre-pandemic volumes. This will place a further strain on an already fragile court system.

With the English Family Court in such a difficult position, it is not surprising that individuals are looking to find alternative forms of dispute resolution and the courts are encouraging this. Exploring constructive means for overcoming difficulties, such as collaborative practice can help couples move to the future they want for themselves and their families with greater confidence and control.

Danielle Day is head of family law at Berwins. Recognised by legal directories Chambers and Partners and Legal 500, she is a passionate advocate of Collaborative Family Law.

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