Hybrid Hearings in the Family Courts – Some Lessons…

Trying something new can be scary. Trying something for a second time, after it didn’t go well the first time, can be even worse. That was the situation I was in this week when I went back for another go at a “hybrid hearing”. Fortunately, this time I was more experienced, less nervous and had more confidence in my own understanding of how everything worked. By Joseph Lynch
Hybrid Hearings

The good news is that the hearing was able to take place and ran relatively smoothly, once initial problems with feedback were resolved. We set up the hearing as suggested in the report on hybrid hearings in the CJC prepared in the last week or so. 

The initial problem with feedback was as a result of the sound on the Judge’s computer not being muted, but once that was sorted-out, we had no issue in the courtroom – although some of the remote parties did have intermittent problems with feedback but nothing that led to them seeking to stop the hearing.

The remote attendees were present via Microsoft Teams. I set up the meeting with a time estimate of three days and all parties were able to sign-in on the initial link throughout.

Present in court were the Judge, counsel for the local authority, me and my client (mother) who had brought her own tablet. Present virtually were the key social worker, the solicitor for the guardian, the guardian and my pupil. 

Time was taken on the morning of the hearing to make sure that all parties could join the Teams meeting. For my part, this included assisting my client to download the relevant software to the device she had managed to borrow.

Generally, there were no issues with the connection to the meeting once I had set it up and all parties were able to hear those in court clearly. My client did have some minor issues re-joining but I suspect that was down to the fact her tablet was quite old and basic, but it still enabled her to engage.

On the afternoon of day one, we dealt with the evidence of the social worker and, whilst I will not claim it would be a preferred method for me, it did work. So did the presentation of documentation on screen for all parties during cross examination. It is a useful way of ensuring everyone is looking at the right page and saves time getting people there.

Resuming the hearing on day two was very straightforward with no real issues arising. My client had brought her tablet again so was visible to the remote parties during her evidence. The Guardian completed her evidence remotely. Again, not my preferred choice but with no real issue and all parties were able to hear and make closing submissions.

The key point that I would raise is that, if my client had not brought her own device with her, then the hearing would not have been able to take place. Likewise, if we had not had a speaker/microphone (provided by the judiciary) the hearing would not have gone ahead. 

If these hearings are to continue to progress, then parties will have to have come to a clear decision as to who bears the responsibility for provision of the necessary hardware. It may be that individual representatives are content to provide the speaker/microphone, but I think the issue of tablets/devices for the lay clients is one that will need to be addressed quickly.

If that issue can be resolved, then I see no reason why hybrid hearings cannot become a regular occurrence over the coming months. 

As the courts begin to adapt to the new way of working, so will we. Whilst each case will bring its own nuances and potential pit-falls or difficulties, hybrid hearings can and should be seen as compatible with both Article Six and Article Eight rights.

They will allow the courts to start to make an inroad into the matters that have been delayed due to the current pandemic. As they are fine-tuned, such hearings will become a viable alternative to in-person hearings. 

At this stage, whilst I am in favour of the necessary alternative options, I will still need some convincing that they should ever replace face-to-face justice.

Moral of the story – If it does not go quite to plan the first time, work out the problems with some people you trust and then have another go.

Central Chambers has considerable dealing with matters via remote links and using technology. This experience is across all areas of practice.

Joseph Lynch is the Head of Family at Central Chambers.