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The impact of Covid-19 on the Family Courts

Covid-19 has caused considerable disruption to the Family Courts, putting extra pressure on a system which was already overstretched.

The court staff, Judges and family law practitioners have done their best in the circumstances to adapt and many hearings have been held remotely on the phone or via video link, but not all hearings can be carried out remotely. This means that for some, their case has been put on hold.

We have no idea when the courts will open their doors again and when face to face hearings will be able to take place. There will certainly be significant delays in getting a new hearing date. It is therefore a very unsettling time for our clients who are waiting for hearings to deal with things such as division of the family assets or with which parent a child should live or spend time with.

For those clients who are part way through a case dealing with finances and feel that they are stuck in the court system, there is the possibility of arranging a privately held Financial Dispute Resolution Hearing (FDR). An FDR is the second of three court hearings in family finances case. The purpose of the hearing is for the parties to try and reach an agreement following an indication from a Judge as to what they consider a fair outcome to be. Most cases settle at this stage and only a minority proceed to the third and final hearing.

Private FDR’s have been around for a few years but there has not been a huge uptake on them with most opting to stay within the court system. A private FDR follows the same procedure as an FDR conducted at court, but it is arranged to suit the parties. The parties choose a Judge (usually an experienced barrister specialising in family matters), they select the venue and the time. It is therefore much more flexible and far quicker. The parties will also have the full attention of the private Judge whereas a Judge sitting at court will often have to deal with 6 or so FDR’s in one day.   Private FDR’s can be held virtually and can therefore continue to take place during Covid-19.   

The parties will pay the instructed private Judge to conduct the hearing and for some it will unfortunately be unaffordable. Whilst it is an added expense, if both parties go into it with the intention of settling their case and a resolution is reached, it could save costs in the longer term as well as reduce the stress of being stuck in the court system.

Parties can agree to have a private FDR even where no court proceedings have been issued.

We are therefore encouraging our clients to consider the use of FDR’s wherever possible now to try and resolve cases outside of the court system. If you would like more information please contact Jamie Wood