Welcome to this month’s Roundup, where we correct, clarify and comment on media reports of family court cases, explain and comment on published family court judgments and highlight other transparency news
MEDIA COVERAGE OF FAMILY COURT MATTERS
Many mainstream news providers – Reported issues of worry and confusion for separated families as the country locked down in response to the Covid-19 pandemic over the last month. See for example the Mail and BBC News. There’s a growing media focus at the moment on the Government’s response to concerns of heightened risk to children and families from domestic abuse during the lock-down, ahead of (remote) evidence to the Home Affairs Committee next week. This Guardian report from Louise Tickle (Transparency Project member) featured grave issues for those involved within the public care system from foster carers to families unable to see children for long periods. In the meantime, Jack Harrison interpreted the law on contact with children in care in light of Covid-19, including in light of new DfE guidance to social care services. See Coronacontact- what about the children in care?:
Link-tastic and transparency positive
BBC News and the Guardian – BBC News linked readers of their report, Coronavirus: Children can visit separated parents during restrictions to the President’s guidance. The Guardian linked to original research behind this opinion (which we hope to discuss further when we’ve dug into the judicial diversity statistics and research cited). Thanks to both. Linking to original free access sources, such as primary research and family court judgments remains highly unusual practice from journalists / online news providers:
NEWLY PUBLISHED CASES
Covid related facts or process
Re EK (A Child)  EWFC 25 (02 April 2020) Care and Placement Order – Mostyn J published the judgment from a 5 day remote hearing via Skype for Business concluding with the making of care and placement orders, commenting on the remote process during the Covid emergency at paragraph 5.
Prospective Adopters v the London Borough of Tower Hamlets  EWFC 26 (03 April 2020) – Mostyn J published the judgment from a decision not to grant permission to oppose an adoption nor to hear oral evidence. It was heard remotely via Zoom during the Covid emergency with comment on that process at paragraph 34.
VB v TR  EWFC 28 (07 April 2020) – Mostyn J documented some limitations of a remote hearing by Zoom at paragraph 15 involving the mother’s connection failing and submissions needing to be made in writing in this judgment.
Re T (Children)  EWCA Civ 507 (07 April 2020) – Judgment from a Court of appeal decision to uphold a fathers application to appeal against findings of abuse, referencing a successful remote process at paragraph 3.
Re PT (A Child)  EWHC 834 (Fam) (31 March 2020) – Judgment from a decision to order summary return of a 12 year old to Spain via a remote hearing on the Microsoft Teams platform, with discussion of the remote process at paragraph 14 and weighing the risks of coronavirus within the welfare exercise at paras 46-48:
London Borough of Tower Hamlets v Mother, Father and X  EWHC 832 (Fam) – Mrs Justice Lieven published a judgment from decisions made in a remote hearing by telephone on a councils urgent application for an injunction to prevent parents approaching or publishing information about prospective adopters. The remote process is briefly referenced at paragraph 2.
Padero-Mernagh v Mernagh (Divorce: Nullity: Remote Hearing)  EWFC 27 (03 April 2020) – Judgment of Mr Justice Williams, in which he explains the remote hearing process used (paras 10-14), sets out the protocol he followed at the outset (para 13) and references the blog post of a court user’s quite different perception from a judicial one hosted at the Transparency Project (see below), in considering the issue of fair process (para 14). Blog to follow.
Non Covid related
A, B And C (Adoption: Notification of Fathers And Relatives)  EWCA Civ 41 (29 January 2020) – Lucy Reed explained a court of appeal judgment that reviewed the law on non notification in the process of deciding three court of decisions on their own facts. See Secret babies – non-notification of dads and extended families
JD & Anor v VB & Ors  EWFC 16 (04 March 2020) – Julie Doughty explained a private law judgment involving unproven allegations of sexual abuse and transfer of residence, that lead a psychologist to warn that “In the battle between the parents both children risk being run over by the tanks”.
Z (A Child : committal proceeding) (Rev 1)  EWFC B5 (24 January 2020) – Malvika Jaganmohan highlighted the judgment from a family court decision that emphasised the importance of drug testing reports being sent directly to the court by the testing agency, not via any other party in How technology almost thwarted the family courts again (Z (A Child: committal proceeding).
M v F  EWHC 576 (Fam) (13 March 2020) – Judgment from an appeal allowed against a FHDRA hearing decision of HHJ Tolson concerning child arrangements and allegations of domestic abuse. Blog to follow we hope.
IN OTHER TRANSPARENCY NEWS
The new arrangements
Commentators have rightly pointed out the extraordinary committment from the judiciary and other professionals to put workable arrangements in place to keep the family justice system going at all during the pandemic:
Links to guidance
From the outset the Transparency Project have tried to gather a deluge of changing guidance in one place. Further guidance appears to be emerging as we write on when remote hearings will generally be inappropriate for family cases:
Emerging perspectives on remote hearings
We hosted blog posts about the experience of remote hearings from the perspectives of a litigant, an anonymous circuit judge and a legal blogger. See Remote justice: a family perspective on the experience of ‘Sarah’, court user, via Celia Kitzinger, her supporter, which lead to provisions on professional decorum in an updated version of judicial guidance. The judgment from this much reported decision is here. See also Remote Justice: A Judge’s perspective by an anonymous circuit judge and Remote Justice: A legal blogger’s perspective from Lucy Reed, Transparency Project Chair. And Remote hearings: a gulf between lawyers and lay parties? by Malvika Jaganmohan rounding up the different emerging perceptions. (See too this later blog from the judicial office, oddly lacking acknowledgement of perspectives beyond ‘just how well these remote hearings are going’). The Transparency Project is conducting a survey to ensure the experiences of as many families on the sharp end of family justice delivered through remote hearing are available too. Please share widely:
Efforts already underway to evaluate the impact of Covid-19 arrangements
Transparency Project patron Clifford Bellamy suggested in a letter to the Times that At some point normality will return. When it does, the experiment of remote working should cease until there has been proper consultation and evaluation of the effects on those who are most vulnerable, and have the most to lose — the children and families the system exists to serve. We’ve seen the following efforts to evaluate so far:
The Nuffield FJO survey on remote contact– The Nuffield FJO held an open access webinar to explore how remote family contact time was working and launched a survey into how children in care/adoption/kinship care are keeping in touch with family members in ‘lockdown’ (and what digital contact might offer after Covid arrangements end). Tortoise and the Family Justice Observatory held a remote ‘think in’ encouraging a wide range of professionals and those on behalf of families to share perspectives on how digital technology was working.
The Transparency Project survey on how family members are finding remote hearings – The Transparency Project have launched a survey designed to capture the experiences of family members of remote family court hearings specifically. Lucy Reed explained why we are conducting the survey in How are remote family court hearings working for families? Survey:
The Public Law Project survey on remote hearings more generally – The survey is here.
Open justice, transparency and access for press (and legal bloggers)
Judith Townend discussed open justice in light of coronavirus in Covid-19, the UK’s Coronavirus Act and emergency ‘remote’ court hearings: what does it mean for open justice? at the Information Law and Policy Centre following her earlier blog during the progress of the Bill. See also The Remote Family Court – where does transparency fit in? from Lucy Reed (Transparency Project Chair); Natalie Byrom’s podcast on the future of access to justice and the way the courts are adapting to the challenges presented by COVID-19; Is closed justice a price worth paying to keep courts running? from Penelope Gibbs at Linked In and the Remote Courts worldwide site:
In other transparency news
The ‘Secret’ Family Court: Fact or Fiction? – His Honour Clifford Bellamy, former Judge and Transparency Project Patron, launched his new book (virtually) with a well attended and fascinating panel exchange of views about what measures to improve public trust through transparency might look like. You can buy the book or listen to the webinar at Bath Publishing. See reports / reviews at Family Lore, the Times and the Society of Editors:
The President’s transparency review – The deadline for submissions has been extended to the 11 May 2020 in light of the Covid emergency. We’ll publish the Transparency Project response as soon as we can, alongside others we see.
Seen something to go in the next Roundup or that you’d like us to write about? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
We have a small favour to ask!
The Transparency Project is a registered charity in England & Wales run largely by volunteers who also have full-time jobs. We’re working hard to secure extra funding so that we can keep making family justice clearer for all who use the court and work within it. We’d be really grateful if you were able to help us by making a small one-off (or regular!) donation through our Just Giving page. You can find our page, and further information here.
Thanks for reading!