Lancashire CC v M – The latest coronavirus adjournment application
This is the latest reported case concerning an application to adjourn a final hearing in care proceedings due to the coronavirus pandemic. The father, who made the application to adjourn, required the assistance of an intermediary to engage in the proceedings.
The background of the case is that in October 2018, the child was admitted to hospital and subsequently a number of injuries to the child were discovered.
The final hearing had been listed originally in March 2019, however, during the hearing, the father collapsed required an ambulance. The hearing was adjourned until October 2019 as a result, however the father was unable to participate in that hearing; a psychiatrist concluding that his depression rendered him vulnerable and that he required the assistance of an intermediary.
The final hearing then commenced on 16th March 2020, just one week before the UK introduced ‘lockdown’ in the UK. On 17th March, MacDonald J adjourned the final hearing part heard due to concerns about the parties’ and others’ safety amid the pandemic.
Attempts were then made in April 2020 for the case to be heard remotely, however the parents contended strongly that a remote hearing would not be appropriate in this case. The court then made arrangements for a socially distanced face-to-face hearing in May 2020 at the Manchester Civil Justice Centre, which had been assessed as being Covid secure.
The application to adjourn
The father’s application to adjourn the part-heard hearing was on the basis that he would not be able to properly participate in the hearing, nor would he be able to travel to Manchester to engage in the hearing.
The father’s position (supported by the mother) was that the court should adjourn the hearing until a fully face-to-face hearing could take place at Preston. The LA opposed any further delay to the final hearing.
MacDonald J at paragraphs 28-46 sets out the recent case law and other authoritative documentation dealing with coronavirus-related applications to adjourn proceedings. MacDonald J considered the application of Re A, Re P, and the President’s document, The Family Court and COVID-19: The Road Ahead, concluding that it is clear from the signposts in The Family Court and COVID-19: The Road Ahead that;
“adjourning cases indefinitely or for a period of many months will not be a viable option and that adjourning a case to await a full face to face hearing is unlikely to be a proper course where an effective and fair remote and hybrid hearing can be held with steps taken to maximize the fairness of that remote or hybrid process” .
The court therefore did not accede to the father’s application, noting at  that “whilst C's welfare is not the court's paramount consideration in the current context, as is made clear in The Family Court and COVID-19: The Road Ahead the child's welfare and the need to avoid delay will always be a most important factor and may well be determinative in many cases”.
The full judgment is available at https://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWFC/HCJ/2020/43.html