A report published by the Nuffield Foundation’s Family Justice Observatory looking at remote family court hearings, has confirmed that mothers have had children removed from their care during telephone hearings – sometimes without the mothers in attendance.
The document, which was finalised in September and published on Tuesday, was sent to President of the Family Division Andrew McFarlane after he asked to see the report before it was released, according to several reliable sources with knowledge of the matter.
Views on remote hearings in the family courts during the coronavirus pandemic were collected from 1,300 individuals, with most of the respondents being legal professionals. Parents and family members made up just 10% of those who submitted feedback.
The findings from the Nuffield Foundation’s research are worrying, and suggest that remote hearings are, in many cases, breaching parents’ and children’s right to a fair trial, and in several instances causing significant harm to children and their families.
The research reveals that 40% of parents did not understand what was happening during their remote hearings, while 66% said their cases had not been dealt with well through the online hearing process. Only 12% of parents and relatives polled said they had no concerns about their remote hearing.
And despite court-ordered and agreed face-to-face child contact being allowed during the pandemic – and confirmed by the government to be the default position during lockdown – social workers were still reporting that this form of contact was being blocked by their local authorities.
One social worker who was quoted in the Nuffield Foundation’s report, said, “It’s horrendous – every week I go to a managers’ meeting and argue that the lockdown/COVID regs and government regs don’t prevent direct contact but we have only just begun to run it again. So contact virtual unless I can argue child is in family placement and was already moving between the two households before lockdown. I spent money on a laser thermometer as part of risk management but still no contact took place until recently.”
A barrister who had experienced remote hearings during lockdown said, “[The hearing was] virtual, but with a 12 month-old baby this was all but pointless. The baby was removed at four months, COVID lockdown happened at 10 months and no direct contact then for six months. It was completely inhumane.”
Another barrister noted, “Virtual contact. it was absolutely terrible, M posed no risk to the child and the LA was incredibly slow to even think about facilitating in-person contact, relying on the lack of resources. The judge was sympathetic to the lack of resources issue and told me that she could not make facilities available that simply weren’t available. I accept that, but this child was under one year old and had not seen its mother for five months.”
Other complaints made by parents, which clearly compromise the right to a fair trial, included an inability to speak with their lawyers or lay advisors during remote hearings, and an inability to see parties to the case during phone hearings, or the judge being able to see the parents’ faces, and a complete lack of support before, during and after the proceedings.
Parents also raised concerns about not being able to engage fully with the hearings because they simultaneously had to care for children in the home, and feeling excluded from the process after not being given even basic information about their case, or their hearing.
The findings have led the Parent, Family and Allies Network (PFAN), who were contracted by the Nuffield Foundation to gather views from parents for the survey, to call for a ban on telephone hearings.
PFAN interviewed 21 parents for the report but noted in their own documentation that several other parents in crisis reached out to them after feeling unable to carry on without emotional support.
PFAN’s notes on the interviews they conducted include deeply traumatic experiences of parents whose children were removed from their care.
One mother contacted the Network five days after her son was removed from hospital after birth. The mother was given the news by telephone from the social worker, but only after a hearing had taken place.
The mother had not been notified that a hearing was scheduled, and she had no legal representation or support. Her baby was taken just hours after she received the news from a social worker who was not known to the mother.
The mother did not know who to call or where her baby had gone.
PFAN make three key recommendations in their own report: remote hearings should only take place where face-to-face hearings are impossible and the matter is urgent, no telephone hearings at all for family cases, and better support for parents and family members who engage in remote hearings where they are deemed to be necessary.
Researching Reform supports these recommendations, and would also encourage the government to implement the following policies:
All child welfare professionals designated as key workers to ensure family courts and child contact centres remain fully open during tiered restrictions and lockdowns
We now have enough information about how to contain the spread of the virus. Court rooms should be regularly disinfected, seating should be safely distanced and masks should be worn but drop-down or hand-held microphones (used safely) should be available to ensure people are heard clearly. Temperature checks and symptom checks should be carried out before hearings start. Hand sanitiser should be made available in every room and at the front door.
Contact centres and child contact venues should be wiped down after every meeting. Mothers, fathers and family members visiting children should wear masks while being allowed to hold and play with their children. Temperature checks and symptom checks should be carried out before contact. Hand sanitiser should be made available in every room and at the front door.
Local authorities must be made aware that face-to-face contact during the pandemic is still allowed during lockdowns and tiered restrictions.
Do you have any additional recommendations? Let our readers know in the comments section.
Apologies for the quick and dirty post, work is a little busy at the moment.