The family court in lockdown – part 3

An incursion

2pm – Lunch despatched, I’m back in court for the final case of the day. This is a hearing about the making of a special guardianship order.

Bristol City Council is the local authority involved, and it’s another case where the pandemic has adversely affected children who are urgently in need of a settled home: the transition plan created for these siblings to move from foster care to relatives has been impossible to put into effect because of lockdown restrictions.

We access the meeting log-in. The judge goes through all the usual warnings; make sure you’re alone, no recording, this is a private hearing. There are no objections to me attending.

The parties and their counsel appear on screen. From what I am able to make out – introductions go fast and I’m not familiar with the case – for the LA there is a barrister and two social workers; the mother’s barrister but not the mother; the Guardian’s barrister but not the Guardian. One father has no facility to join remotely; one father has had to go to work and sends his apologies. The prospective special guardians are in attendance and visible, sitting in what looks like their living room.

This is effectively a hearing to update the judge as to progress, or rather, thanks to lockdown, lack of it.

As the barrister for the Guardian makes her points, it’s suddenly apparent that someone is approaching the open patio door behind her. A teenager in shorts and t-shirt wanders into the room. Everyone watching can see. It takes a couple of seconds for the Guardian’s barrister to grasp what’s happening behind her.

Horrified, she turns around and says something to the effect of “You have to leave. Now.” She says it again, with increasing emphasis, at which point the teenager skips across the screen and out of shot.

Profuse apologies follow. The judge is understanding.

Fortunately, this is not an upsetting hearing. Children are not about to be removed from their parents, as was the case at the morning’s interim care order application. We are not in a hearing with a mother in hospital, who, having just given birth, is facing the loss of her newborn compounded by no physical contact for untold weeks. So on this occasion, the fact that the solemnity of the courtroom was broken didn’t actually hurt anyone who was already in a  vulnerable position.

But it demonstrates clearly one of the dangers of remote hearings under conditions where people have no option but to work from home. To me, it was a graphic example of how, despite everyone’s best intentions, virtual hearings could go badly wrong for someone who has to enter the family justice system at the most distressing time of their life.

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