Remote hearings – the Court of Appeal’s stock-take

In two decisions handed down on 30 April 2020, Re A (Children) (Remote Hearings) [2020] EWCA Civ 583 and Re B (Children) (Remote Hearing : Interim Care Order) [2020] EWCA Civ 584, the Court of Appeal undertook a stock-take of the position in relation to remote hearings. Both were decided by Sir Andrew McFarlane, the President of the Family Division, and Davies and Peter Jackson LJJ.  Re B is primarily of importance for indicating how the pressures of the current situation led to a series of cumulative missteps, including by the Guardian and the judge. In Re A, the Court of Appeal to set out a number of “cardinal points and relevant factors with a view to assisting courts to make appropriate decisions in this changing landscape.” Although the cases concerned children, the principles are equally applicable to cases before the Court of Protection.

The key points from Re A are as follows:

Paragraph 3:

i) 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 principles 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.

ii) 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.

iii) 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’.

Paragraph 9:

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 facts of Re A illustrate the challenges faced at the moment, in the context of an individual (the child’s father) with “limited abilities, and some disabilities, which render him less able to take part in a remote hearing. He has been diagnosed as dyslexic. He is unused to reading. He has a short attention span, is emotionally fragile and brittle and quickly becomes exasperated.” The Court of Appeal emphasised that “[t]he concept of fairness and the need for a lay party to ‘engage’ in the process includes the ability of that person to follow and to understand what transpires at a court hearing at least to an adequate degree and then to be able to instruct their lawyers adequately and in a timely manner.”  The Court of Appeal also considered problematic the approach proposed by the judge a hybrid one which would have seen the parents giving evidence before him in person in court, but in the absence of their representatives (who would attend by video):

58. […] Recently, in the judgment given in Re P (A Child: Remote Hearings) [2020] EWFC 32 at paragraph 26 the President stressed the importance of the court being able to see all the parties in the court room. Although that case was specifically directed to the hearing of allegations of Factitious or Induced Illness, the more general point that a judge will be in a better position to assess the evidence of a witness who gives evidence live from a witness box than one who speaks over a video link is plainly right. There is, however, a need for caution when the only witness(es) required to attend court are the lay parties when others, for example the key social worker, are not. When a lay party is required to attend court, but his or her advocate is not, the cause for concern at the imbalance in the process must be heightened. Consideration must be given to the potentially exposed position of a witness giving live evidence in front of a judge in the absence of his or her lawyers or any of the other parties and in response to questions asked over a video link. The judge does not appear to have considered whether in this particular case it was reasonable to expect these parents to be placed in that potentially daunting position. When this is placed in the balance alongside the other factors which establish a lack of a fair process it gives them additional weight.