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Family Law in Lockdown

View profile for Dan Cooper
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The COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has brought about seismic changes to the way that we as a society live our lives, changes that were unimaginable at the turn of the year other than in the minds of Hollywood directors (the film “Contagion” now looks like a documentary rather than a work of fiction!).

Whilst Family Lawyers are considered “key workers” under the governments issued guidance (given our crucial role in providing the most vulnerable members of the public with access to justice in some of the areas of law most heavily affected by the COVID-19 outbreak, child protection and domestic abuse), Family Law Group have endeavoured to enable our staff to stay healthy and safe by working from home. Our offices are now manned by a skeleton staff of two to three people who answer incoming calls, open and distribute post, send out parcels/post and enable those working from home to access information from physical files in the office.

This has meant that approximately 90% of our work force are now working from home and adapting to the new “normal”. This involves meeting with our clients and attending court from the comfort of our homes (still suited and booted!) via a multitude of video conferencing apps including (but not limited to) Skype, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Facetime and Whatsapp video calls.

For reasons unknown, every Court, law firm and local authority have their own “favourite” and therefore we have had to quickly become dab hands at using the various apps. Legal commentators appear to be pushing a narrative that these “remote hearings” have been a success, however having attended 20 or 30 of these hearings over the last few weeks, I can say from my part that they are unsatisfactory, with clients often unable to play a full part in the hearing, and the difference in standing in a Court room advancing technical legal arguments to a Judge directly is vastly superior to doing so in a room in your home to a computer screen with various faces popping up at different times, which can be incredibly distracting!

In terms of workloads, when the Government announced the lockdown there was the concern that these measures would be catastrophic for children for whom school was their only sanctuary and also create a boiling pot which would see an exponential rise in cases of domestic abuse. It appears that both of these concerns were well founded, with our offices seeing a marked increase in both public law cases and applications for domestic abuse orders. Nationally, the amount of domestic abuse reported has (according to the BBC) increased by some 25%, and there have been a higher than average number of those incredibly tragic cases where partners have killed their partners and/or children. Many commentators are questioning whether these measures to curb the spread of the disease are worse than the disease itself. That is a question that will only be possible to properly answer with hindsight, and as ever, the government will find itself damned if it does, and damned if it doesn’t.

Remote working means remote client meetings, again either simply via telephone or one of the many video conferencing apps previously mentioned. These tend to work better than hearings, typically because there are fewer people involved and there is more direct interaction. General feedback has been positive and new clients have been able to get their cases off the ground and existing clients’ cases have progressed unabated. Having a physical presence in the office has meant that crucial bits of paperwork required can be obtained, however previous investment in our IT equipment, software and servers, coupled with our existing processes (including scanning of all incoming documents/post on to our system) has meant that by and large the information our lawyers need to do their jobs at home is readily available at their fingertips.

For now (as of 21 April 2020) there is no end in sight to working from home. The challenges beyond remote hearings include remote supervision (checking correspondence, advice and providing general support) and for many balancing the needs of the office with the needs of their own family. With young children no longer in school, this can be fraught with unforeseen pitfalls, such as a 5 year old attempting to enter the room with his “Super Teddy” mid Judgment or paperwork being used as a paper aeroplane (it could be argued that this is a far better use for some of the paperwork received!).

There are of course some positives, commuting for many is for now a thing of the past, time spent with family has increased and there is a feeling that the world is taking time to “reset”, with pollution falling to levels not seen for many a year and people reconsidering what is important to them (the NHS receiving many plaudits and much charitable donations, our firm has recently raised over £1000 for the NHS Together Charity). 

Many people are however struggling with the lockdown, and we have tried our hardest to support our staff through this difficult time, with mindfulness seminars, Zoom yoga sessions, and assurances wherever possible in relation to pay.

When lockdown will end has yet to be confirmed, but when it does the family justice system (and the legal system generally) will take some time to reset. Hearings that have been adjourned will have to be scheduled in to already busy Court diaries, with the chances that Counsel with whom clients have built up a rapport being no longer available. Staff will return to offices and (depending upon further outbreaks) potentially face an alternating pattern of face to face working and then more time remotely working in lockdown.

Thankfully, the general consensus and attitude towards this crisis from all those working in Family Law Group is that we will overcome whatever obstacles are put in our way so that we can continue to ensure that everybody has access to the best possible legal advice at all times, with all of us adapting constantly to achieve this goal.

Dan Cooper is a director of Family Law Group, managing our Milton Keynes office. Family Law Group has offices throughout the country providing specialist family law advice. For further information or support please contact 08000 320 999.