HOW COURT PROCEEDINGS IN THE KENT FAMILY COURTS ARE BEING CONDUCTED DURING LOCKDOWN by Kevin Jackson

The purpose of this article is to provide guidance to parties who have instructed a barrister under the Direct Public Access scheme, as to how your court hearing is likely to be conducted whilst coronavirus restrictions are in place.

When a party issues proceedings in the family court, the court will respond by sending to each party a Notice of Hearing informing them of the court date, the venue and what type of hearing is to take place. There are now 4 types of hearing:

  • hearings by telephone
  • hearings by video
  • hearings where the parties, their legal representatives and any witnesses attend court in person
  • hybrid hearings where some individuals attend court and others are present by phone or by video 

Court cases are allocated to specific courtrooms within each court building, and the court draws up a daily list for each courtroom. Some of these cases will be new cases and some will have been adjourned from a previous court hearing. The daily lists are reviewed to ensure that court time is used effectively. This means that your particular hearing might be changed. For example, your case might be re-allocated to a different court, to a different judge/ district judge or it might be changed from one type of hearing to another. The definitive listing for your case will usually be finalised on the day before the hearing (sometimes late in the afternoon). For this reason, you should check your court listing on the working day before the hearing. Do not rely on what was sent to you in the Notice of Hearing and if your case is an adjourned hearing, do not rely on what was decided in court at the time.

The finalised court lists for family cases are published on line and listed by case number. The listings can be accessed at http://www.courtserve.net/secure/registration.php . You will need to register to access this service. Alternatively, you may be able to liaise with your barrister, who will have access to courtserve. 

Hearings by telephone 

Whilst the courts are striving to conduct hearings in person, at present this is not possible for all cases because in order to ensure covid safety compliance only a few attended hearings can be heard each day. In practice, most court hearings are being conducted by phone. This is especially so for non-urgent cases and hearings that are mainly procedural. 

If you have been notified that your case is going to be heard by phone or if yours is a hybrid case and you are due to take part by telephone, you will be contacted by phone and dialled into the court hearing. 

Make sure you have given the court the number on which you wish to be contacted and make sure that you are available on this number from shortly before the time that your court hearing is due to start. It can take time to get everyone dialled in, so there may be a short delay before you are contacted. 

Once everyone has been dialled in, you will all be told how the hearing is going to be conducted: You will be told that these are court proceedings the same as if you were physically present at court. Because they are family proceedings, they are confidential. You must not record the proceedings as this is a contempt of court. You should be alone (unless the court has given you permission for someone to be present with you) and in a room where you are not likely to be disturbed. 

The court will usually expect to hear from the lawyers only. To this end, it is likely that the court will put you on mute during the hearing.

Court time will be at a premium. The court will probably be proactive in identifying what it regards as the key issues and in inviting the legal representatives including your barrister, to give succinct and focused arguments on the se points. Where child arrangements are in dispute, be prepared for the court to make pragmatic and robust decisions, even at the first court hearing.   

hints and tips

  • To ensure that the hearing does not overrun and to ensure that all of the parties have a fair opportunity to be heard, your barrister will be given a limited amount of time to address the court.

    Give your barrister as much information as possible well before the hearing date and keep him/her updated on any significant developments. This will enable your barrister to advise you on drafting a written Position Statement that fully covers the points that you want the court to know about and thus obviate the need to spend extensive time on this during the hearing
  • It will not be possible for you to talk to your barrister during the telephone hearing. It is open to any lawyer to ask for a short break to talk to their client or to discuss issues with the other lawyer(s), but this can be disruptive. During the course of the hearing, the judge/ district judge or one of the other lawyers might raise an issue that you have not discussed with your barrister. Before the hearing takes place, arrange with your barrister to have an alternative means of communication during the hearing, such as by email or by text messaging 
  • As a Direct Public Access litigant, you may be required to file with the court documents that are relevant to your case (eg: your statement of evidence). Generally, the courts are willing to accept these documents by email. These should be sent to family.medway.countycourt@justice.gov.uk. Put the court venue and the case number in the subject header. If your hearing has been allocated to a particular judge/ district judge then you can mark the email “For the attention of His/ Her  Honour Judge [insert name] or District Judge [insert name]”. If there is a last minute change of judge/ district judge re-send the email to the court office and ask them to forward the email to the new judge. If there is a change of court venue, then re-send the email to the new court venue.

Video hearings

The courts have a secure video conferencing system called the Cloud Video Platform (CVP). This works in a similar way to zoom, but it is more secure. Your device will perform best using google Chrome. 

You can find detailed guidance on how to access the CVP at www.gov.uk. The court will send you a URL. Close all other browsers and tabs. Copy and paste the URL into the address bar of your browser and press enter. Type in your name and a description (eg: applicant father). Click on the audio and video option and then click ‘connect’. Ensure that both the microphone and video are set to default. When you see yourself on the screen, press ‘start’. You should have been sent a PIN with your hearing notice. Enter your PIN and press ‘connect’. If you do not have a PIN, select ‘Guest’ and press connect. 

If you have problems logging in, it is likely that the court will phone you. The court staff are well trained in operating the CVP system and should be able to talk you through the login process. If this fails, you will be able to join the hearing by phone instead.

Once everyone has been logged in, the judge/ district judge will give similar warnings and parameters as apply to telephone hearings (see above). You have the option to mute your speaker and to turn off your video. 

CVP hearings are likely to be used in preference to telephone hearings if the court is being asked to make important decisions about the child(ren);  if the court wants to hear directly from say, a CAFCASS officer or social worker who has been involved with your family or who has been directed to give recommendations to the court; or when the court needs to hear evidence under oath or affirmation. 

Again, the court will usually set the parameters for the hearing, assist the parties by identifying what it regards as the key issues and it will expect the lawyers to be succinct.

That said, the courts are fully aware that the current lockdown restrictions have placed everyone under unusual levels of stress and that court proceedings are a difficult time for all concerned. Wellness both physical and emotional is important, and so the courts are amenable to allowing the parties short breaks if required.   

hints and tips

The hints and tips that are set out above in relation to telephone hearings, apply equally to CVP hearings.

  • Be aware that some microphone pick-ups are very sensitive and so background noises that you are not aware of can be distracting during the court hearing (eg: laptop keyboards and mobile phone key pads if not set to silent).
  • Be aware of your demeanour whilst on camera
  • Try to choose a background that is not going to be distracting
  • Do not eat or drink during the hearing, except for a glass of water
  • If you have muted your microphone and the judge wants to speak to you directly, remember to turn your speaker back on

Hybrid hearings

Hybrid hearings are used most commonly when the court has determined that the hearing should take place in person, but an individual or individuals involved in the proceedings attend by video or by phone. This would usually arise if one of the parties or their legal representative has been given permission by the court not to attend in person (eg: because they are shielding) or if the court has determined that a witness who is required to give evidence may do so without being physically present at court  (eg: an expert witness or a witness who is overseas). 

The family courts have put in place Covid-19 protocols including social distancing, sanitizers etc. Only one case is listed at a time so that there are not multiple persons in the court building at the same time. There are limits on how many persons may be in the same conference room. Social distancing is maintained in the court room itself.  

COURT VENUES

At present, the family courts in Kent are administered from the Combined Court Centre Medway. If you are required to file any documents in relation to your case, these should be sent in the first instance to Medway. It is also advisable to send the documents to the court venue where your case is actually listed. The family court venues and their respective email addresses are as follows:

Canterbury Combined Court Centre

The Law Courts

Chaucer Road

Canterbury CT1 1ZA

family.canterbury.countycourt@justice.gov.uk

Canterbury Family Magistrates’ Court

Broad Street 

Canterbury CT1 2UE

Dartford Family Court

Home Gardens

Dartford DA1 1DX

family.dartford.countycourt@justice.gov.uk

Maidstone Combined Court Centre

The Law Courts

Barker Road

Maidstone ME16 8EQ

No email address is listed for family cases though as a last resort, there is an email address for the criminal section:

maidstonecrowncourt@justice.gov.uk

Medway Family Court 

Anchorage House

47-67 High Street

Chatham ME4 4DW

family.medway.countycourt@justice.gov.uk

The above is also the address of the Family Magistrates’ Court  

Seven Oaks Family Magistrates’ Court

The Courthouse

Morewoood Close

London Road

Sevenoaks TN13 2HU

northkent@justice.gov.uk

Thanet Family Court 

The Court House

2nd Floor

Cecil Square

Margate CT9 1RL

No email address is listed

October 2020