The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted us all in so many ways. It has caused massive disruption and loss and brought about immeasurable change. One feature of the pandemic has been the rapid adoption of remote and hybrid court hearings, as opposed to in-person hearings, in the English Family Court and the Court of Protection.

The future use, benefits and advantages of remote court hearings have recently been addressed by Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, in a speech on 16 October 2021 looking at the future of The Family Justice System. He explained that we have now reached a point in the Covid-19 pandemic where it is possible to think about a gradual increase in the number of cases that are heard in-person in court, as opposed to remotely or by way of a hybrid hearing. Whilst stopping short of issuing formal guidance, he set out some broad parameters of what is now expected in general terms with respect to remote working.

For my part, I take the view that used appropriately, remote court hearings in the Family Court mark a positive step forward in embracing the benefits of modern technology and improving access to justice and our commitment towards the environment. They provide greater flexibility and another format for successfully resolving family and fertility law issues for parents, children and families.

They can help address issues of geographical distance from court, lower our carbon footprint and enable us to conduct court business and sensitive personal and family issues from the comfort and security of our own home.

I also share Sir Andrew McFarlane’s view that remote court hearings are here to stay and his assessment that: “No one working in the Family Court or the Court of Protection now expects a return to the status quo, in terms of working practices, that existed in February 2020. Supported by enhanced IT, the courts have now become used to remote working and, for an appropriate hearing, and there will be many, this should now be the format of choice.

The central theme running through the approach that should apply is that the parties and their lawyers should normally be physically present at court on those occasions when an important decision may be taken.”

However, despite the benefits associated with remote court hearings, it is important to continue to take on board that they do not offer a complete panacea. In-person court hearings can be beneficial too because they can provide a valuable opportunity for advice, negotiation with other parties and possible settlement that is not simply afforded by remote court hearings. I also endorse Sir Andrew McFarlane’s assessment that: “Remote platforms are good for undertaking transactional communications, but there is more to a Family Court hearing than simply transacting business. Much that goes on has a ‘human’ perspective, which can often be lost online, but is fully present in a court room.

We need to continue to embrace the technology and to use it, for the right hearings, to the full. There are clear detriments to attended hearings in terms of travel time and the inability to attend to other cases at other centres during the extended time needed for physical attendance. There are also unwelcome collateral consequences in terms of additional expense, carbon foot-print and other factors. Part of my message is, therefore, that remote hearings, for the right case, are here to stay.”

Specialist Fertility and Family Law

Specialist fertility and family law advice and court representation navigates many complex legal and wider issues associated with fertility treatment, donor conception, surrogacy, co-parenting arrangements, adoption and complex personal situations. It can create a bespoke family building legal and practical action plan to help preserve and maximise individual fertility, understand options and make better informed decisions about conception, family creation, biological identity and legacy. It also helps effectively address many complex fertility and family law issues, including:

  • An application to bring or defend a step-parent adoption order.
  • An application for an order to recognise a foreign adoption under English common law.
  • Unexpected death of a loved-one and related issues associated with posthumous storage and use of eggs, sperm and embryos in fertility treatment (e.g. due to an accident, illness including Covid-19).
  •  Care and upbringing of children following a dispute with an ex-partner, parent, donor or surrogate.
  •  Legal issues and options where women face rapidly declining age-related fertility and loss of opportunity for conception (e.g. fertility preservation and maximisation, management of existing personal relationships and implications of using donor gametes).
  • Delays in medical diagnosis and consequent treatment and associated impact on individual fertility.
  • Difficulties with storage and use of frozen eggs, sperm and embryos in fertility treatment in the UK (e.g. lack of consent and expiry of storage terms).
  • Issues associated with import of frozen gametes and embryos into the UK for use in fertility treatment and surrogacy (e.g. due to anonymous and commercially obtained gametes and embryos which engage UK public policy restrictions).
  • Issues associated with the export of frozen gametes and embryos abroad for use in fertility treatment and surrogacy (e.g. lack of consent and storage term difficulties).
  • Legal parentage disputes with an ex-partner, donor, co-parent, step-parent, surrogate.
  • Legal parentage disputes with a UK fertility clinic (e.g. problems and omissions with HFEA consent forms).

If you would like to discuss your family building needs or you would like specialist fertility and family law advice contact Louisa.