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Judiciary issues guidance as remote hearings to become the norm immediately in Family Court

it should be possible to continue substantially the full operation of the family justice system, albeit on a remote access basis, notwithstanding the COVID-19 pandemic, guidance produced by the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary has said.

Written by Mr Justice MacDonald, The Remote Access Family Court suggests that the key challenges in implementing a remote access Family Court for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak “centre on the extremely short timescale over which such a system must now be introduced and the need to mediate the very large choice of software and hardware platforms currently available to courts and court users pending the introduction by the Ministry of Justice of a centralised remote access system (the forthcoming ‘Cloud Video Platform’ or CVP)”.

The judge says it is already clear that, whilst through a Protocol For Remote Hearings in the Family Court and Family Division of the High Court it would be possible to stipulate now and nationally the detailed procedure for remote hearings, it is “simply not going to be possible at this point, pending the introduction of CVP, to arrive at a common agreement as to a single ‘off the shelf’ software platform to be used in the interim in all cases”.

In these circumstances the guidance therefore proposes that in the interim (and in any event as a continuing contingency to ensure multiple redundancy following the introduction of CVP) the court and parties choose from a ‘Suite’ or ‘Smorgasbord’ of IT platforms.

This would be “subject always to the cardinal requirement that at the outset of each case the judge and parties consider and settle on the platform that is to be used in that case”.

The guidance covers:

  • Proof of concept.
  • Aims and objectives.
  • Legislative framework: statutory basis for remote access; rules of procedure.
  • Challenges: remote issuing of applications and orders; judicial access to range of communications platforms; e-bundles; witnesses; recording; use of interpreters; use of intermediaries; transparency; litigants in person; security; legal aid; publicity.
  • Timescales.
  • Primary remote communications platforms: MOJ/HMCTS Cloud Video Platform; judicial telephony; telephone conferencing/BT MeetMe; Skype for Business; Microsoft Teams; Zoom; Lifesize; FaceTime.
  • Appendix 1: a procedural protocol modelled to a certain extent on the Civil Protocol published by the Master of the Rolls.
  • Appendix 2: a protocol to ensure that where some live hearings remain contemplated, those hearings are safe.

The guidance says: “The reality is that for the future foreseeable remote hearings will become the norm and they must become the norm immediately.”

Mr Justice MacDonald accepts that there remain "very substantial problems to solve", adding that consideration will need to be given to establishing a body which will continue to work to solve these problems and which will then monitor the operation of the remote access Family Court with a view to making changes and additions where necessary.

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