Family Law Update - Important Changes Under Covid 19 May 2020

Cafcass launch the Co-Parent Hub - Katherine Henry

Cafcass have launched a new programme called the Co-Parent Hub (CPH). Following two pilots, the CPH is designed to be a free online resource for separated families. The idea is to provide families with helpful information and the tools needed to help co-parent and if necessary negotiate child arrangements.

Parents are able to create an account on the Hub accessing a parenting plan as well as providing advice and information.

For details of the press release: https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/2020/04/28/co-parent-hub-launched/ 

For programme details: https://cafcass.clickrelationships.org

 In addition, parents are able to download the Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP) Handbook on the Cafcass website. The aim of the SPIP is to help parents understand the impact of conflict on children.

 For details of the SPIP and handbook: https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parents-and-carers/divorce-and-separation/separated-parents-information-programme/

Online parenting courses for Child Arrangement Proceedings - Laura Baines

In this current lockdown period where face to face parenting courses are unlikely to be running, it might be worth looking at the Solihull approach which appears to still be running online. This is especially so for those cases where the parties are being urged to “sort it out themselves” or need to progress contact and one of the barriers potentially holding that up is a parenting course. 

The main weblink is https://solihullapproachparenting.com/ - click on the link at the top of the page “For parents” and then “Online course for parents” and there are lots to choose from. It currently appears to be a cost of £39, which in this current climate is rather affordable compared to other parenting courses. It is also available in English, Urdu and other languages which again gets over another barrier that might appear in certain cases. 

The most useful is probably the “Understanding your child” course, the details of which are here: https://inourplace.heiapply.com/online-learning/course/6

This course can be done online in 11 sessions done in the parents’ own time. It is about as interactive as parties are going to get in the current situation and worth a look. 

The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus)(Amendment) Regulations 2020 - Rachel Chapman

On 24 April 2020, the Adoption and Children (Coronavirus)(Amendment) Regulations 2020 (‘The Amendment Regulations’) came into force. The Amendment Regulations have relaxed some of the often-strict rules and guidelines Local Authorities have to adhere to when dealing with care proceedings, placement applications, residential placements and fostering. The Amendment Regulations amend 10 sets of regulations currently in place in England.

The aim of the Amendment Regulations is to ensure that Local Authorities and designated Children’s Services departments do not come under undue pressure in order to meet the requirements which, in the current climate, would be unrealistic or a danger to themselves or those around them.

Of particular importance is the amendments to the Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010 (‘Care Planning Regulations’). The amendments to these are dealt with in Regulation 8 of the Amendment Regulations.

The Care Planning Regulations usually regulate the placement of children who are under the care of the Local Authority as well as ensure that regular checks of the Children are taken, and their cases regularly reviewed. As a result of the Amendment Regulations, some of the following changes have now been made:

  1. When a child is placed under emergency placement with foster carers, the Local Authority may place with foster parents who have been approved by the Fostering Services Regulations 2002, even if the terms of that approval are not consistent with the placement, providing that the placement is for no longer than 24 weeks (as opposed to 6 working days, which was originally in place) (Part 7, Regulation 8(10) of the Amendment Regulations).
  2. In respect of Regulation 24 of the Care Planning Regulations, persons who are not Local Authority foster parents may be given temporary approval as foster parents for a period not exceeding 24 weeks (as opposed to 16 weeks, which was originally in place) (Part 7, Regulation 8(11) of the Amendment Regulations)
  3. In respect of visits, the Regulations have inserted an amendment into Regulation 28 of the Care Planning Regulations which allows representatives of Local Authorities, i.e. social workers, to conduct visits via telephone, video calls or other electronic ways. Further, and maybe more importantly, it has extended the timescales for those visits. The amendments add in that ‘Where R is unable to visit C within the timescales set out in this regulation the responsible authority must ensure that R visits C as soon as is reasonably practicable thereafter.” (Part 7, Regulation 8(13) of the Amendment Regulations)
  4. Frequency of reviews have also been amended. The Regulations set out that rather than reviews being carried out at ‘intervals of not more than 6 months’, they are now to be undertaken ‘where reasonably practicable thereafter’ (Part 8, Regulation 8(14) of the Amendment Regulations)
  5. The definition of ‘connected person’ has also been omitted, as well as references to the word ‘connected’ throughout the Amendment Regulations. 

The above is not an exhaustive list of the amendments made to the Care Planning Regulations. Further amendments have been made, as well as amendments to 9 other sets of regulations. What is clear is that Coronavirus is affecting and will continue to affect all areas of society for some time. It, however, should be noted that the Amendment Regulations are currently only in place until 25 September 2020.

The link to the Amendment Regulations can be found here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2020/445/contents/made

Re P (A Child: Remote Hearing) [2020] EWFC 32 - Sara Chalk

The above case should be considered by all family law practitioners when considering whether a contested hearing should proceed on a remote basis.

On 16th April 2020 The President of the Family Division handed down  the  attached Judgement which considers the appropriateness of a fully contested hearing (in this case a composite finding of fact hearing concerning allegations of FII against the mother) taking place on a remote basis.

The decision of the President outlines a number of key principles to be considered when parties, and indeed the Court, are considering whether a matter is suitable to proceed by remote hearing. There is 'no one size fits all' approach. If a matter can be heard remotely it doesn't mean it must be. When considering whether a hearing can proceed remotely all practitioners must in particular consider the ability of lay parties to participate in remote proceedings and all practitioners must be alive to issues of fairness and to ensure all parties are on an equal footing.


Background to the case

This case concerned allegations of FII by the Local Authority against the mother and a 3-week composite Finding of Fact hearing was due to commence on the 20th April 2020. At the PTR on 3 April 2020, the parties, along with the trial judge, accepted that the hearing could proceed remotely having been influenced by MacDonald J's 'The Remote Access Family Court' guidance document.

On 16 April 2020, the President of the Family Division convened a short hearing to consider the merits of the matter proceeding remotely. The Local Authority’s position was that despite the complex nature of the allegations it was of the view that a hearing could properly take place remotely and that any delay to hearing the matter would not be in the child’s welfare. The LA proposed that if the Court were concerned as to the mother’s participation in the hearing it could hear the professional evidence and adjourn the hearing to a later date for the lay parties evidence. The Father supported the Local Authority position, although he was not involved in the FII part of this case. The Children’s Guardian supported the Local Authority’s position that the Court should hear the matter in full or as the LA proposed hear part of the evidence with a later hearing date being convened. It was submitted by leading counsel on behalf of the Guardian that technical difficulties which may prevent the Mother's participation with her lawyers or at the hearing could be overcome and should not be a reason for an adjournment.  The Mother opposed the Local Authority position and sought to adjourn the matter. It was accepted that the Mother did not initially oppose a remote hearing at the PTR on the 3rd April 2020.  It was submitted on behalf of the Mother in light of recent guidance given to judges by the Presidents of their respective divisions and in light of the mother's inability to effectively participate within the proceedings (due to an unstable internet connection and her ability to receive advice and to give instructions throughout the hearing), that 'this is a case that falls outside the category of hearing that could be contemplated as being able to be concluded over a remote platform in a manner that meets the requirements of fairness and justice.' (para 19 Re P)

The President made note that some judges have allowed the attendance of lay parties, and their representative, to attend court to give evidence however this was not deemed appropriate in this matter due to the Mother's suspected infection with Covid-19. (para 20 Re P)


The President's Decision

The President considered '…that a trial of this nature is simply not one that can be contemplated for remote hearing during the present crises. … I would hold that this hearing cannot be properly or fairly be conducted without her physical presence before a judge in a courtroom.' (para 29 Re P). Therefore the President re-listed the matter until such time that the restrictions relating to Covid-19 are lifted.

The following are general principles from the President’s decision to be considered in relation to the conduct of contested remote hearings:

  • 'The Remote Access Family Court' written by MacDonald J 'does not offer guidance or give direction' as to whether a hearing should be heard remotely. The President stated this document is 'aimed firmly at the mechanics' (para 8 Re P) of remote hearings. 
  • Establishing that a hearing can be conducted remotely, does not in any way mean that the hearing must be conducted in that way’. (para 8 Re P) (emphasis added by the President).
  • We must not lose sight of our primary purpose as a Family Justice system, which is to enable courts to deal with cases justly, having regard to the welfare issues involved [FPR 2010, r 1.1 ‘the overriding objective’], part of which is to ensure that parties are ‘on an equal footing’ [FPR 2010, r 1.2]. In pushing forward to achieve Remote Hearings, this must not be at the expense of a fair and just process’. (para 23 Re P)
  • The President considered, in matters of FII, it crucial 'for the judge to be able to experience the behaviour of the parent who is the focus of the allegations throughout the oral court process; not only when they are in the witness box being examined-in-chief and cross-examined, but equally when they are sitting in the well of the court reacting…'  (para 12 Re P)
  • The letter issued by the 'Presidents' to judges on 9 April 2020 does not give guidance and should be considered as setting parameters which may assist the Court in determining whether or not a remote hearing should proceed. 
  • There are a number of factors the Court and parties should consider when deciding whether to proceed with a remote hearing, including but not limited to, the seriousness of the case, available facilities, the availability of technology and each parties ability to access the same, the personalities and expectations of participants and the tribunal's experience of remote working. It is for these reasons that the President has stated '…that the decision on remote hearings has been left to the individual judge in each case, rather than making it the subject of binding national guidance.'  (para 24 Re P)
  • The impact on professional diaries of vacating hearings cannot be a factor which weighs very significantly when deciding whether to proceed with a remote hearing. (para 25 Re P) 
  • The Court should be mindful whether any particular case can proceed properly or fairly without the physical presence of a lay party in the courtroom even if all parties are in agreement that it can (para 29 Re P)

It is therefore imperative that when considering whether a hearing can take place remotely that the above factors should be considered in order to achieve that such a hearing is fair for all parties. As stated by the President Establishing that a hearing can be conducted remotely, does not in any way mean that the hearing must be conducted in that way”.

Re B (Children) (Remote Hearing: Interim Care Order) [2020] EWCA Civ 584 - Lee Young

This case should be a lesson to all public law practitioners.

"COVID-19 necessity for remote  ICO removal hearings should not be allowed to excuse or bypass the very high burden on local authorities seeking interim removal."

The test for interim removal is well established -

Judgment of Peter Jackson LJ in the case of Re C (A Child) (Interim Separation) [2019] EWCA Civ 1998 - paragraph 2 (1) - (2) (5) where his Lordship set out a consistent series of propositions:

(1)An interim order is inevitably made at a stage when the evidence is incomplete. It should therefore only be made in order to regulate matters that cannot await the final hearing and it is not intended to place any party to the proceedings at an advantage or a disadvantage.

(2)The removal of a child from a parent is an interference with their right to respect for family life under Art. 8. Removal at an interim stage is a particularly sharp interference, which is compounded in the case of a baby when removal will affect the formation and development of the parent-child bond.

(3)Accordingly, in all cases an order for separation under an interim care order will only be justified where it is both necessary and proportionate. The lower ('reasonable grounds') threshold for an interim care order is not an invitation to make an order that does not satisfy these exacting criteria.

(4)A plan for immediate separation is therefore only to be sanctioned by the court where the child's physical safety or psychological or emotional welfare demands it and where the length and likely consequences of the separation are a proportionate response to the risks that would arise if it did not occur.

(5)The high standard of justification that must be shown by a local authority seeking an order for separation requires it to inform the court of all available resources that might remove the need for separation.

What went wrong in Re B (Children) (Remote Hearing: Interim Care Order) [2020] EWCA Civ 584?

This case concerned a LA issuing proceedings in respect of 2 children Sam (not his real name) aged 9 and Samantha (not her real name) aged 11 years.  They were children in the care of their Maternal Grandmother under a Special Guardianship Order arising out of previous care proceedings.  The Mother was a drug addict.  The Father was also but he had died.  There were difficulties concerning the behaviour of Samantha and MGM's inability to cope.  There was an incident when Police were called to the home on 20th March where Samantha was outside screaming.  She said that she had been hit by the Aunt.  The MGM and Aunt denied this physical chastisement.  Samantha was taken into Police protection and placed in foster care.  On 23rd March MGM signed section 20.  On 1st April 2020 MGM withdrew her consent.  On 2nd April the LA issued care proceedings for an ICO in respect of Samantha and an ISO in respect of Sam.  There were historical allegations against the Maternal Uncle who was known to be attending the home in breach of written agreements in place.  A CG was appointed.  The case was listed before a Recorder the next day.  The CG recommended ICOs in respect of both children.  This recommendation was made on very little knowledge of the background to the case.  CG had not spoken to Sam.  As a result of the CG's recommendation it would seem the LA changed their interim care plan.  The LA had not tried to come to any arrangement with MGM once they knew MGM had withdrawn her section 20 consent.  The Recorder ordered separation.

The case criticises the LA, and the CG.  The Court of Appeal were troubled by the lack of any kind of balanced analysis by the CG.  There was no analysis of the detriment to Sam in being removed without notice or preparation.  There was no reference to Sam's wishes and feelings.  The LA sought to justify the decision to remove in the Court of Appeal - arguing that it was "an emergency application in which child protection imperatives had to prevail".  The problem was there was no emergency!

This was a classic case where although the principles set out in Re C were referred to - they were not applied to the evidence.

Consequently, the appeal was allowed and thankfully Sam returned to the care of his MGM.

So the moral is all practitioners should assist the court to apply the law and the guiding principles on ICO removal to the evidence in the case.

Re A (Children) (Remote Hearing: Care and Placement Orders) [2020] EWCA Civ 583 - Laura Baines

Hot off the press and already used by one of the Circuit Judges in Portsmouth this morning (01.05.20)! So practitioners take heed of what the Court of Appeal says and make sure you have at least read this one or have a copy to hand if you’re dealing with an IRH and the matter is being listed for a final hearing to consider whether that final hearing should be remote or in-person.

In summary the Court of Appeal do say it is a matter for the Judge looking at the factors they list as to whether a final hearing can be remote, a hybrid of remote and in-person or a full in person hearing.

In my case this morning the Judge has listed an in-person final hearing deeming the case not suitable for a remote hearing because the application includes a placement for adoption application and one of the parents is to give evidence.

Re A was the first appeal in a case relating to the welfare of children to reach the Court of Appeal on the issue of remote hearings during the Covid-19 pandemic. The appeal was heard on 22 April 2020.

At paragraph 3 the Court of Appeal stress the following cardinal points with the utmost emphasis:

  • The decision whether to conduct a remote hearing and the means by which each individual case may be heard are a matter for the judge or magistrate who is to conduct the hearing. It is a case management decision over which the first instance court will have a wide discretion, based on the ordinary principle of fairness, justice and the need to promote the welfare of the subject child or children. An appeal is only likely to succeed where a particular decision falls outside the range of reasonable ways of proceeding that were open to the court and is, therefore, held to be wrong.
  • Guidance or indications issued by the senior judiciary as to those cases, which might or might not be suitable for a remote hearing are no more than that, namely guidance or illustrations aimed at supporting the judge or magistrates in deciding whether or not to conduct a remote hearing in a particular case.
  • The temporary nature of any guidance, indications or even court decisions on the issue of remote hearings should always be remembered. This will become all the more apparent once the present restrictions on movement start to be gradually relaxed. From week to week the experience of the courts and the profession is developing, so that what might or might not have been considered appropriate at one time may come to be seen as inappropriate at a later date, or vice versa. For example, it is the common experience of many judges that remote hearings take longer to set up and undertake than normal face-to-face hearings; consequently courts are now listing fewer cases each day than was the case some weeks ago. On the other hand some court buildings remain fully open and have been set up for safe, socially isolated, hearings and it may now be possible to consider that a case may be heard safely in those courts when that was not the case in the early days of ‘lockdown’.

The key paragraph and the one relied upon by my Judge today was paragraph 6 of Re A, which states as follows:

  1. On 9 April 2020, the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Rolls and the President of the Family Division sent a message to all circuit judges and district judges concerning remote working during the ‘lockdown’ [‘the LCJ’s message’]. That message included this guidance:

Generally:

  • If all parties oppose a remotely conducted final hearing, this is a very powerful factor in not proceeding with a remote hearing; if parties agree, or appear to agree, to a remotely conducted final hearing, this should not necessarily be treated as the ‘green light’ to conduct a hearing in this way;
  • Where the final hearing is conducted on the basis of submissions only and no evidence, it could be conducted remotely;
  • Video/Skype hearings are likely to be more effective than telephone. Unless the case is an emergency, court staff should set up the remote hearing.
  • Parties should be told in plain terms at the start of the hearing that it is a court hearing and they must behave accordingly.

In Family Cases in particular:

  • Where the parents oppose the LA plan but the only witnesses to be called are the SW & CG, and the factual issues are limited, it could be conducted remotely;
  • Where only the expert medical witnesses are to be called to give evidence, it could be conducted remotely;
  • In all other cases where the parents and/or other lay witnesses etc are to be called, the case is unlikely to be suitable for remote hearing.

The other relevant paragraphs in the Judgment are paragraphs 8 and 9, which state as follows:

  1. It follows, applying the principles set out above and the guidance that has been given, that:

(i) Final hearings in contested Public Law care or placement for adoption applications are not hearings which are as a category deemed to be suitable for remote hearing; it is, however, possible that a particular final care or placement for adoption case may be heard remotely;

(ii) The task of determining whether or not a particular remote hearing should take place is one for the judge or magistrate to whom the case has been allocated, but regard should be had to the above principles and guidance, as amplified below;

(iii) The requirement for ‘exceptional circumstances’ applies to live, attended hearings while the current ‘lockdown’ continues.

 

  1. The factors that are likely to influence the decision on whether to proceed with a remote hearing will vary from case to case, court to court and judge to judge. We consider that they will include:

(i) The importance and nature of the issue to be determined; is the outcome that is sought an interim or final order?

(ii) Whether there is a special need for urgency, or whether the decision could await a later hearing without causing significant disadvantage to the child or the other parties;

(iii) Whether the parties are legally represented;

(iv) The ability or otherwise of any lay party (particularly a parent or person with parental responsibility) to engage with and follow remote proceedings meaningfully. This factor will include access to and familiarity with the necessary technology, funding, intelligence/personality, language, ability to instruct their lawyers (both before and during the hearing), and other matters;

(v) Whether evidence is to be heard or whether the case will proceed on the basis of submissions only;

(vi) The source of any evidence that is to be adduced and assimilated by the Court. For example, whether the evidence is written or oral, given by a professional or lay witness, contested or uncontested, or factual or expert evidence.

(vii) The scope and scale of the proposed hearing. How long is the hearing expected to last?

(viii) The available technology; telephone or video, and if video, which platform is to be used. A telephone hearing is likely to be a less effective medium than using video;

(ix) The experience and confidence of the court and those appearing before the court in the conduct of remote hearings using the proposed technology;

(x) Any safe (in terms of potential COVID 19 infection) alternatives that may be available for some or all of the participants to take part in the court hearing by physical attendance in a courtroom before the judge or magistrates.

The Court of Appeal was keen to say that the above should be seen as being limited to the determination of the individual case to which it relates. Each case is different and must be determined in the light of its own specific mixture of factors.

In Re A the Judge had decided to conduct a hybrid hearing over 7 days with some witnesses (the parents) to attend in person to give evidence and then the others were to attend remotely. This was a set of proceedings which included applications for placement for adoption orders and the Court of Appeal determined on the facts of that case the Judge’s decision was wrong. One of the determining factors in Re A was the inability of the Father to participate or engage adequately in a remote hearing because of his personality, intellect and diagnosis of dyslexia. The other factors were the imbalance of procedure in requiring the parents, but no other party or advocate, to attend before the judge and the need for urgency was not sufficiently pressing to justify an immediate remote or hybrid final hearing. The children subject to applications for a placement for adoption order in Re A was 3 years and 10 months and 20 months of age.

An important element in every case is the age of the children and the degree of urgency that applies to the particular decision before the court. The Court of Appeal was clear that the appropriateness of proceeding with a particular form of hearing must be individually assessed, applying the principles and guidance indicated above to the unique circumstances of the case.

So in essence it may well come down to the preference of the specific Judge and how keen they are to conduct remote final hearings where the plan is one of adoption and how they interpret the Court of Appeal’s decision in Re A.