Court out?

July 01, 2020 | 5 minutes

How remote hearings have changed the face of family law in Jersey.

The COVID-19 enforced lockdown and the associated remote working that have become the norm in the last three months can bring about feelings similar to those when divorce is on the cards. 

Along with feeling a sense of isolation, we re-arrange our living and working patterns, we question the unknown and ask ourselves if there is an end in sight. 

As those who have experienced a divorce or other family breakdown may tell you, the end of a marriage may mean attending court if:

  1. The parties are unable to agree on how to divide the assets of the marriage (the matrimonial “pot”);
  2. They are unable to agree about who the children should live with (residence), or how often each parent should see the children (“contact”);
  3. They cannot agree how much maintenance money (if any) should be paid to support the children of the relationship or indeed one of the spouses.  

In most divorce cases, family lawyers will ensure that the parties negotiate a settlement based on knowing each other’s assets and liabilities in the form of sworn financial disclosure.  Above all, there is the need to keep the best interests of the children in mind when considering living and financial arrangements. 

However, if you can’t agree a settlement via discussions and correspondence, and the Court isn’t open due to concerns about a certain global pandemic, then what do you do? The size of the smaller court rooms often used for family law cases makes it impossible to keep a safe two metre distance between all those present. 

The Courts, often thought of as old-fashioned, have in fact been “sitting” and making orders throughout lockdown. Jersey family lawyers have become used to speaking to their clients via video conferencing, and the Court has been conducting online hearings with the parties and their lawyers all in separate locations. “E-bundles” are used to save documents being copied and delivered.  Some clients have told us of their relief at this new form of hearing – of not having to be in the same room as someone they now consider “the other side”. They are also pleased that they do not have to physically “go to Court” and are glad that that their case can be heard remotely. 

Certain matters lend themselves well to online court hearings, which can be arranged swiftly. However, such hearings still require the same level of focus that one would expect in any courtroom, and with the added difficulty of being unable to “read the room”.  

Could one positive post-Covid outcome be greater flexibility in the type of hearing offered in family matters? This would empower the parties and free up court rooms for other cases. With the potential for some financial settlements to be reviewed because of the implications of the pandemic on incomes and livelihoods, this would be one reassuring way to navigate the post Covid – and post-divorce – landscape. 

Chris Hillier is a partner and Advocate at Ingram Advocates, where he leads the Family Law team. Allana Binnie is an Advocate in the Family Law team.

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