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March 20, 2020

As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the court system is facing almost unprecedented disruption. Many hearings are being adjourned, either through the illness or self-isolation of those involved in the case, whether clients, solicitors, Counsel or Judges. The health and well-being of the people of our country is our top priority and it is essential that we take all steps necessary to defeat the virus. Anyone suffering symptoms should of course follow the government advice.

The justice system is a crucial part of a civilised society, and must continue to function, no matter how trying the circumstances. To this end, the members of the Albion Matrimonial Finance Team are determined to do everything we can to continue to meet the needs of our professional and lay clients.

We are all working from home remotely and, of course, are able to continue to receive instructions to advise, whether in writing, on the telephone, or via video conferencing. Papers can also still be sent in the usual way, although the guidance is that the handling of paper should be avoided if at all possible, so ideally papers should be sent electronically.

We anticipate a rise in requests for settlement or round-table meetings during the pandemic, and these can also be easily arranged to occur remotely.

It is vitally important that the workings of the justice system do not grind to a halt and in many instances, where no-one involved in the case is directly affected by the virus, it will still be possible also to conduct hearings, including final hearings. In those circumstances we are following the guidance issued by the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, and of Mostyn J, together with helpful local guidance from District Judge Cope. This indicates that the default position will be remote hearings, with face-to-face hearings taking place only exceptionally and if completely unavoidable. It is assumed that very few, if any, such hearings will take place over the next few weeks and months.

The guidance provides a draft directions order to facilitate the organisation of hearings, which emphasises the need for the applicant’s solicitor to take the lead in making arrangements both for the organisation of the remote hearing and for the need for the system to be tested before the hearing commences, so as to avoid last-minute glitches. The Albion Matrimonial Finance Team will do everything we can to facilitate the process and are ready to help in any way we can with these arrangements.

We recognise that such hearings will work only if the advocates are familiar with the technology and so each of the members of our Team is fully conversant with and able to work with a whole range of software. We are currently awaiting guidance from HMCTS as to their nominated product, but once we have that we will ensure we are adept at using it. The days of barristers being charmingly tech-phobic have gone. Most of us have been using these systems for many years for conferences, and some of us have already conducted hearings in this way. It is surprisingly easy to get used to.

The guidance from Mostyn J and DJ Cope commends the use of private FDRs, which will both ease the pressure on the justice system, but is also perhaps a little more user-friendly. In circumstances where the parties opt for a Private FDR, there is no suggestion that the Family Court will insist on a conventional FDR as well.

Although Private FDRs are not unknown in the South West, they are an initiative which has historically proven less popular here than in London, where the delays and costs of standard FDRs are so much greater. There are, however, significant advantages, even here; largely the ability to choose one’s “Judge”, but also confidence that the “Judge” is fully engaged in the case, has prepared properly and has no other cases to distract him or her. In these difficult times there is an added advantage of the private FDR, namely the certainty that the hearing will definitely happen and the technology is definitely in place.

Needless to say, at Albion we feel we have the best range of advocates and “Judges” to enable Private FDRs to be a success and cost-effective, even in cases involving modest assets.

If you think you have a case which might be suitable for a Private FDR, or if you have any other query, please do not hesitate to get in touch either directly with me on nicholas.sproull@albionchambers.co.uk or to our clerks michael.harding@albionchambers.co.uk or julie.hathway@albionchambers.co.uk

Stay well.