What Are Remote Family Court Hearings Really Like For Parents? – Voice of the Child Podcast

For our thirteenth Voice of the Child podcast, we talk with a mother who has experienced three remote hearings during the Coronavirus lockdown, and her McKenzie Friend Anne Neale, who is also the spokesperson for Legal Action for Women.

In this episode, we look at how these hearings are conducted, the ethical and human rights concerns they raise, and we discuss the Nuffield Foundation’s newly published review on remote family court hearings.

Many thanks to the mother (who uses a pseudonym during the interview), and to Anne for taking part in this podcast.

You can listen to the Voice of the Child here. 

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Further Reading:

Legal Action for Women’s Submission to the Nuffield Rapid Review

Nuffield Family Justice Observatory Rapid Consultation 

In The News

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Government Must Set Up Task Force To Protect Children from COVID-19

Researching Reform is calling on the government to set up a children’s task force aimed at protecting children from the virus, as emerging data suggests children could be in grave danger.

The call comes months after this site warned the government that children in the UK were at risk of infection from the virus, and that a significant number of children in care had underlying health conditions making them extremely vulnerable to infection.

One care home has already reported that every single child in its care has been infected with the virus. However the true picture of those infected in residential settings will never be known unless the government implements emergency measures to track the spread of the virus in these homes.

Children and the novel Coronavirus

Despite governments around the world initially claiming children were immune to the virus, this site has repeatedly called for immediate action to ensure children are protected while data on the virus remains limited.

We renewed those calls after speaking with South Korean national lead Dr Chung, who confirmed during an interview that children were not immune and could die from the infection.

That was over a month ago.

Research is now confirming the worst – that children can be infected, and can die from the virus.

UK doctors have become so concerned by the growing number of child cases that they issued a nationwide alert on Twitter on 26th April after several children became critically ill with symptoms linked to the virus.

Since then, over 100 severe cases worldwide have emerged, with that number likely to increase sharply over time.

On 4th May, the U.S. National Institutes of Health launched a study to work out how many children in the country have been infected with the virus.

Research highlighted online by the Daily Mail (the only newspaper so far to cover this data) offers these key findings:

  • A Chinese study found children under 14 had triple the number of contacts as adults
  • Researchers said school closures can lower peak cases by 40-60% and delay epidemic
  • A Germany study found children can carry as high levels of COVID-19 in their bodies as adults
  • Findings showed asymptomatic youngsters had viral loads as high or higher than symptomatic children or adults

Children in Care 

Children in care are particularly vulnerable to infection as they live in often cramped quarters with a large portion of that population experiencing serious physical and mental health conditions.

Finding out how many children in these settings have been infected is almost impossible while no mandatory duty to report to a single, unified government database or independent body exists.

The sector, which can only run if it has children it can pass on to foster carers and adopters has little to no incentive to report cases, as doing so would damage their business. No foster parent or adoptee would take in a child with COVID-19 and risk infecting themselves or their existing families.

Children in school 

Researchers around the world are warning governments that sending children back to school while the virus is still visible could lead to a second wave of infections, with one test suggesting that reopening schools could cause a sharp spike in cases.

However many parents have complained that the virtual lessons on offer from organisations like the BBC are not nearly good enough, and are calling on schools to reopen over fears that their children are falling behind.

How the task force should work 

The government needs to set up a task force to ensure children are protected from the virus.

The body would be able to:

  • Approve grants for emergency paediatric research on how the virus affects children, its spread, infection from child to child and child to adult, and the rate of infection
  • Recommend legislation to ensure children are protected – for example, imposing a mandatory duty on care home bosses to report COVID-19 cases to the body’s database and a mandatory duty to have every child in the UK tested for COVID-19
  • Fine organisations who try to suppress cases (i.e. claiming infected children have ‘colds’)
  • Set up any sub-committee it needs, for example an education sub-committee with parents and tech companies to produce high quality virtual lessons for every age group

Useful links:

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Source: An analysis of SARS-CoV-2 viral load by patient age

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“Beyond Reasonable Doubt” Test Preferred in Family Cases

Almost 70% of those who answered a poll asking the public whether they thought the family courts’ current burden of proof should be replaced with the “beyond reasonable doubt” threshold used in criminal courts, said yes.

A poll that we ran last week, and which received 43 votes, found that 69.8% of those who took part wanted to remove the civil test used by the family courts (“balance of probabilities”) and replace it with the criminal test.

The poll, which also offered a third option in an “other” box for members of the public who thought the tests could be improved or further developed, sparked strong reactions in those for and against changing the burden of proof in family courts.

One tweeter said, “Try telling a child that although you believe a parent is most probably abusing them, because you’re not absolutely sure, you’re not going to remove them from harm’s way.”

Another tweeted commented, “I am passionate about reforming the system and the test for for examining evidence MUST be brought in line with the criminal courts. Additionally the evidence in Family Court must be investigated and confirmed as truth, not just assumed to be so as it is introduced by SS!”

Tweeters also described the problems with the current burden of proof in family courts, which is the same standard used for civil courts across the country.

Family courts are considered unique in that cases that come before them often feature both civil and criminal elements, arguably making these tests not fit for purpose.

One tweeter told us, “Feel very strongly about this. I am testimony that this method is very dangerous. I ended up being falsely accused of the father’s crime of drugging. I was falsely accused of Parental Alienation. The current balance of probabilities [test] is a sick joke.”

A commented on twitter added, “In my relatives’ case the judge didn’t even use balance of probabilities (which is ridiculous in itself) she based her “judgement” on her ASSUMPTIONS. If I could take it to high court they would be disgraced at her findings. Ignored BLATANT EVIDENCE. Why? [Money emojis] Yep, the root of it all.”

Another poster said, “It is hard enough to get justice for and protection for victims and especially children. How will children be better safeguarded by raising the threshold?”

You can see the poll on Twitter. 

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Practice Makes Profit – Voice of the Child Podcast

In the last episode for our storytelling series, Paula finds a way to challenge an interim care order and get her baby home, but will she manage to bypass the tactics inside the system and win her son back?

We will be back next week with interviews and more on the Voice of the Child.

Listen to this episode here. 

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Care Homes Must Tell Birth Families When Children Fall Ill During The Coronavirus Outbreak

The birth parents of children in residential care homes must be told when their child falls ill during the Coronavirus outbreak, and must also be consulted about how they should be looked after, a House of Commons briefing paper has confirmed.

The paper, which has been published by the House of Commons library, offers answers to frequently asked questions about child contact in relation to both private (divorce) and public family law (child protection) orders.

The document goes on to explain that managers of residential care settings should speak to parents and carers about their views on whether the child should return home if he or she needs to self isolate. This is what the paper says:

“Concerning situations where a child in residential care needs to self-isolate, guidance states that managers of such settings should speak to parents to establish what should happen:

Managers of residential settings should speak to parents and carers to establish views on whether the child or young person should return home for any period of self-isolation (due to them, or someone else in the same setting, displaying symptoms) or should remain at their setting. They should do this pre-emptively, rather than waiting until someone shows symptoms. Where possible, the risk assessment should also include consideration of the impact on the pupil or student from the disruption of their usual staff relationships and routines.”

The briefing paper also offers information on active legislation and policy that must be followed by councils with regards to contact.

A section entitled “Can I visit my child in care/residential home (England)?” explains:

“Under section 34 of the Children Act 1989, where a child is in local authority care, the local authority must allow “reasonable contact” between a child and their parents, guardian, any person with parental responsibility or a named person who had previous care of the child. However, this can be halted for seven days if the local authority believes it necessary to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare; the refusal is decided upon as a matter of urgency.

UK Government guidance for local authorities on children’s social care states that the Government “recognise[s] that the challenging context means that local authorities and partners will struggle to meet the full range of statutory duties relating to child protection, safeguarding and care at present”.

The guidance states that the Government expects contact between children in care and their relatives to continue and for the spirit of contact orders to be met:

We expect that contact between children in care and their birth relatives will continue.

It is essential for children and families to remain in touch at this difficult time, and for some children, the consequences of not seeing relatives would be traumatising. Contact arrangements should therefore be assessed on a case by case basis taking into account a range of factors including the government’s social distancing guidance and the needs of the child.

It may not be possible, or appropriate, for the usual face-to-face contact to happen at this time and keeping in touch will, for the most part, need to take place virtually. We expect the spirit of any contact orders made in relation to children in care to be maintained and will look to social workers to determine how best to support those valuable family interactions based on the circumstances of each case.

Regulation 11 of The Adoption and Children (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 amends the Children’s Home Regulations 2015.

It states there must be suitable facilities within a children’s home for any child accommodated there to meet persons including parents, friends, relatives and their assigned social worker, or, where this is not possible, for communication over the telephone, video-link or other electronic communication method.

The paper also has a section entitled, “My child contact centre is closed: What alternatives are being made (UK)?” 

Crucially, this section confirms that some contact centres have remained open.

The section says:

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Child Contact Centres are run by a variety of independent organisations that form the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC). They deal with:

• private law cases, where there is an agreement or court order made for supervised contact, and
• public law cases, where a child is in the care of the local authority and a contact order has been made with respect to the child for supervised contact.

The NACCC is maintaining a webpage on Covid-19. The guidance from them is that people should not be attending Child Contact Centres.

Some Centres are exploring ways to ensure child contact can continue to take place:

1. Centres are working creatively with families to see if there are other
people that might be able to take up the role of the contact centre. This works
well where there are family members or other trusted people that can step in,
to support. The government has detailed that children can travel to see parents
and the judiciary are urging parents to work together in making decisions for
children where this is safe and appropriate.

2. Indirect Contact is being achieved using technology like Skype, WhatsApp
video calling, Face Time and so on. Some centres are finding ways to support
this so that similar arrangements can be implemented in line with the services
usually being offered.

3. Other centres are reducing service sizes and availability. This means
that whilst the centre may have suspended contact, it might be possible for them to offer handovers for those parents who just cannot organise this without the centre.

The NACCC states that impacted members of the public should contact NACCC directly or a local contact centre to find out what services are available. Contact details for local centres may be found here: https://naccc.org.uk/find-a-centre.

In Northern Ireland, the Lord Chief Justice’s Office has said parties should contact their legal respective as all Contact Centres have been closed. In Scotland, parties should contact their local Contact Centre.

The Briefing Paper can be accessed here.

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Domestic Abuse: Legal Aid Requirements Relaxed, Bill Second Reading

The Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) (Amendment) Regulations 2020, which extends the types of evidence that can be used by domestic abuse victims, or those at risk of abuse, to apply for legal aid, comes into force on 15th May.

The Regulations also action the following:

  • The removal of the mandatory requirement to contact the Civil Legal Aid (CLA)
    Telephone Gateway for those seeking legal aid in discrimination, debt and special
    educational needs matters, reinstating immediate access to face-to-face advice in
    these cases;
  • The introduction of a discretion for the Director of Legal Aid Casework (DLAC)
    to determine legal help funding, in relation to inquests, earlier than the date of
    determination and;
  • The removal of the mandatory requirement that an applicant for legal aid for
    Family Mediation must always attend the mediator’s premises in order to make
    their application for legal aid.

This Explanatory Memorandum offers more information on the amendments, and you can access Regulation 33 here, which outlines the supporting documents allowed in domestic abuse applications for legal aid (click on the Latest Available tab for changes already made – some changes may still be outstanding).

And the Domestic Abuse Bill has its second reading today in the House of Commons.

The legislation hopes to create:

  • The first ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse
  • A Domestic Abuse Commissioner to support victims and survivors
  • New Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to further protect victims and restrict offenders’ actions
  • A ban on the cross-examination of victims by their abusers and alleged abusers in the family courts
  • An automatic eligibility for special measures to support more victims to give evidence in the criminal courts

You can access a briefing on the Bill from the House of Commons library here.

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