PFAN found parents in England and Wales who had remote family court hearings due to coronavirus had poor legal representation and inhumane and unjust hearings
In September parents and researchers from PFAN (the Parents, Families and Allies Network) had zoom calls and telephone interviews with 21 parents involved in remote hearings in the Family Court. PFAN carried out this consultation for the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory alongside its on-line survey. The NFJO report is also published today.
Almost all the parents felt that their legal representation was compromised by the remote hearings and Coronavirus restrictions and that this detrimentally affected the court outcomes that included children being taken into care. Some had severe difficulty in accessing their representation or engaging with them effectively before or between hearings. Parents who could not meet their legal representative face to face found it very difficult to properly represent their case. Within the hearing parents were not able to engage with their representatives. Many, especially those involved in hearings by telephone, felt they were invisible in the process. One parent said:
“So my last two hearings I didn’t meet my barrister. The last hearing, I didn’t get to brief my barrister ahead of the hearing. The Judge has never seen me, she can’t see what person I am. I’m not allowed to speak so she can’t hear what kind of person I am. My barrister said things that were incorrect and I wasn’t allowed to put my hand up quickly and correct her.”
Most of the parents had concerns about how hearings were managed and had problems with the process of engaging on-line or by telephone. There were also many technical problems. For example a mother giving evidence in a hybrid court hearing with other participants on-line said:
“There was terrible feedback on the audio and I was managing whether the sound was coming out of my laptop, or out of his [the judge]. Whose speaker was on? They couldn’t hear the barrister for the local authority very often. Those things are quite frustrating when you are being asked quite difficult questions and being accused of something that was really, really awful.”
Parents were often at home alone or even looking after their children whilst in a hearing. One mother had two children in an adjacent room:
“he [the judge] made his judgement and obviously I’m a complete mess … and I knew that I had to step out of that room and then pretend that I was OK for my two other children and obviously there was no support.”
Taliah, a parent advocate who coordinated the consultation said:
“I spoke to 53 parents who were interested in taking part. Many were in an awful state having lost their children or fighting for contact without proper help or legal representation. For many it severely affected their mental health. There were several parents who contacted PFAN in crisis. These parents were not in a stable enough emotional situation to participate and this highlights the lack of support that is available to parents. There is no available helpline to call and parents do not have a clear point of contact for help in such challenging times. We offered telephone support and helped them to find support services and in some cases to engage a legal representative.
“One of these mothers called just five days after her son was removed from hospital post-birth. She received this news by telephone from the social worker, after a hearing had taken place. She had not received any paperwork to tell her that a hearing was going to take place, and she didn’t have legal representation. The baby was taken just hours after she received the news from a social worker, who wasn’t even the social worker she spoke to before. This mother did not know who to call or where her baby had gone.”
PFAN are calling for an end to hearings where parents only have telephone access, remote hearings to be only where face to face hearings are impossible and the need for a hearing is urgent and better support for parents involved. In the United States, Parent Advocacy programs in which trained and accredited parents whose children have been involved with the child protection services are ensuring better outcomes for children and families. In these programs parent advocates are employed in legal teams and in children’s services helping parents to engage better with the system. This has reduced the number of children in care and improved engagement with the system to the benefit of many children.
Notes to editors
Embargoed until: Tuesday 27th October 2020 9 am
Link to full report: https://www.pfan.uk/remote-hearings/
Link to Nuffield Family Justice Observatory report: Coming 27th October 9 am
Taliah Drayak: email@example.com
Professor Andy Bilson: firstname.lastname@example.org