Most of us found the restrictions of the UK’s national lockdown very challenging – confined to our homes and with direct social contact limited to our immediate households and support bubbles, when we were used to the freedom of going out to work and socialising with friends, colleagues and our wider family network.
Added to these restrictions, many parents were having to juggle working from home with caring for and home-schooling their children. Others had worries and anxieties about the health and wellbeing of their friends and other family members.
There has been a massive increase in mental health issues, with many people experiencing distress caused by social and physical isolation, anxiety, and depression. This has also manifested itself in increased alcohol consumption, with drinking behind closed doors reportedly being a particular problem among “midlifers” (aged 55 to 64). Overeating and lack of physical exercise for adults, children, and young people alike, has also been a problem.
Not surprisingly, the strains imposed on intimate relationships have often resulted in relationship breakdown, manifested by an increase in the number of divorces. Most disturbingly, there has been a substantial increase in the incidence of domestic abuse in the UK (mainly affecting women and children), as well as a chilling increase in the number of women killed by their partners, compared with previous periods.
Thankfully, the impact on family life has not been all negative, as the findings of various research projects conducted during the pandemic have shown. Throughout the pandemic, despite the restrictions, children of separated and divorced parents have been permitted to spend time with both their parents by moving between the two households. In contrast to the many reports of children falling behind with their schoolwork as a result of not attending school, a significant number of parents have stated that their children have benefited from learning at home on a one-to-one basis, rather than in a classroom with other children.
Where parents have been able to prioritise the wellbeing of their children by providing secure, stable and healthy home lives for their children, rather than focusing on their educational achievements, this has led to positive outcomes for children. The opportunity to work from home, avoid their commute to work, spend more time with their children and enjoy a slower pace of life has also led many parents to reassess their work/career priorities and to seek to achieve a different work/life balance post lockdown, by way of more flexible working arrangements.
How the family court system has coped during the pandemic
The family courts have remained open throughout the pandemic but with very restricted access by the public. At the time of the first national lockdown in March 2020, the family court system was forced to go virtual almost overnight. This involved the family courts operating in a totally new way, without having the necessary infrastructure in place, as nearly all family court hearings had taken place in person prior to this.
In the early weeks and months of the pandemic, many cases were adjourned on the assumption that we would soon be returning to normal. Once it was realised that this was not going to happen, court hearings took place remotely by telephone, using various video platforms (including Zoom, Skype, Life-Size and Microsoft Teams), as well as in person.
Research carried out by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory on remote hearings has shown that for some people, particularly vulnerable parties and parents involved in public law cases (where children are alleged to be at risk of significant harm, so the state needs to intervene to protect them), and the final hearings of contested matters, remote hearings have worked unsatisfactorily and in a way that is unacceptable in terms of fairness and justice.
In order to try to keep on top of workloads as high and, in some cases, higher than in previous years, the family courts have prioritised the most urgent and important work – public law matters, cases involving domestic abuse, urgent children disputes between parents, and issuing divorce petitions and decrees absolute of divorce – to ensure that it gets done. Other matters, such as financial applications, have only been dealt with if/when there was enough time after dealing with the more urgent work, resulting in significant delays for many court cases.
This very challenging time has emphasised the advantages of using non-court dispute resolution options rather than relying on the court to decide the outcome of family disputes. These non-court options include family mediation, collaborative law, arbitration, private financial dispute resolution hearings: “private FDRs” (where the parties choose and pay for their own private judge), and early neutral evaluation.
It seems unlikely that there will be a return to normal working in the family courts until the autumn of 2021. In the meantime, remote or hybrid (where some people give evidence in person and some do so remotely) hearings continue as the default position, rather than face-to-face court hearings. However, most remote family court hearings are now taking place using a virtual platform, rather than the telephone hearings that were common during 2020.
The Family Law department at Burlingtons
The Family Law department at Burlingtons Legal LLP deals with all aspects of family law, including separation and divorce/dissolution of civil partnerships, children’s issues, and the financial aspects of relationship breakdown.
Much of our family law work has an international flavour, involving cross-jurisdictional issues. Burlingtons acts for mid-, high- and ultra-high net worth individuals from all walks of life and/or their partners, and we are used to dealing with high-profile clients and cases involving sensitive and complex issues.
As Head of the Family Law department, I have particular expertise in dealing with marital agreements – prenups, post nups and “no nups” (living together agreements for unmarried couples) – as well as international relocation of children (known as “leave to remove”), where one parent wishes to move abroad with the children following the breakdown of a marriage/couple relationship and the other parent does not wish the children to move.
My experience has included negotiating the terms of a prenup for an individual worth more than £500 million, and acting for two Chinese mothers in separate contested High Court proceedings, both of whom were successful in obtaining permission from the court to relocate with their children to China.
Maeve O’Higgins is an experienced family lawyer, mediator, and collaborative lawyer. She is a member of the Law Society’s Family Law and Family Mediation accreditation panels. If you would like to find out how Burlingtons’ Family Law department can help you, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.