As I sat at my desk, ready to pen the latest Silk Family Law blog post, I happened to glance over at my ornamental crystal paperweight and had a wry smile to myself. The paperweight was a beautiful gift from a client at the end of the difficult case, during which I had often said to him I wished I had a crystal ball to see what the future held. He commented that now I had a crystal ball of my own, I wouldn’t have a problem in future!
Unfortunately, my crystal ball did not predict the events of 2020, a year when all of our lives changed. Reflecting on the past 12 months, I re-read the 2020 family law predictions that I made back in January, completely oblivious to what would happen within the next three months! The lesson to be learnt here is that unless you have a crystal ball that actually works, predicting the future is perhaps best left to the mystics and soothsayers.
Family law changes in 2020
The changes that we have witnessed in family justice over the past 12 months have been driven significantly by the impact of COVID-19 on all of our lives.
1. How the courts and we (as family lawyers) adapted to lockdown restrictions
The first and most obvious change is how the courts and lawyers have adapted to those restrictions. Instead of attending court building in person, with lawyers, judges, magistrates and other court staff in attendance, hearings are now conducted remotely – sometimes by telephone, at other times via video hearings (with varying degrees of success), and occasionally via “hybrid” hearings where there is a combination of court attendance and remote attendance to try to ensure social distancing but also ensuring that justice is seen to be done.
Family justice is no different to the rest of our legal system; it is one of the pillars of our democracy and thankfully has continued to function notwithstanding unprecedented challenges.
2. How we all became more reliant on technology
My colleagues and I at Silk Family Law were fortunate to have upgraded our computer systems a year before COVID-19 had been heard of. We were completely unaware then, of course, to the changes that enforced office closures and home working would bring!
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but this capital investment as well as investment in training for lawyers and support staff to become “paper light” was priceless during lockdown period. We were able to provide a seamless service to both existing and new clients, who have shown an incredible willingness to adapt to the new ways of working via video conferences and telephone conferences.
I now cannot imagine a return to the days of hauling a suitcase to court containing lever arch files full of documents!
3. How Covid-19 helped save many trees!
In turn, the huge volumes of paper which would ordinarily have been generated for court hearings, often running into hundreds of pages, have been virtually eliminated by the filing of E-bundles (electronic documents, which are indexed and can be easily accessed by lawyers, judges and the parties themselves from their laptops or tablets), which provide ease of use as well as helping to save the forests.
4. Online divorce filing
Another positive impact to emerge from COVID-19 was the introduction of the new online divorce process and online filing of many applications under the documents within the family law system. In my opinion, this was long overdue. However, our clients have also benefited from a more streamlined and cost-effective way of progressing their cases. The system is still by no means perfect but it is clearly the way forward and hopefully these niggles will be ironed out in the near future.
What next for family law in 2021?
We all hope that 2021 will bring better times, and that we will slowly but surely move back to some sort of normality. However, there are some positive changes I hope will remain.
1. Remote hearings will become the new normal
One of the most important consequences of the technological advances which have revolutionised how lawyers and courts operate, is that remote meetings and remote hearings have now become completely normal.
I believe that even when courts reopen and we begin to return to personally attended court hearings, there will nevertheless be many situations in which attended hearings will no longer be required. Remote hearings will – I predict – become the new “norm”, with lawyers and parties encouraged to avoid hearings altogether where directions can be agreed in advance.
2. Geography will become less relevant when choosing a famly lawyer
As remote meetings and hearings remain, this will – in turn – mean that geography will be rendered virtually irrelevant. People will begin choosing their family lawyers based on expertise and service, rather than locality. At Silk Family Law, we have always acted for clients throughout the UK and overseas. However, we are increasingly representing clients who live in London and the south-east of England, who are attracted by the combination of our high standards of service and favourable charging rates.
3. Continued interest in Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) methods
There have undoubted been strains experienced by the family court system, which have led to fairly serious delays. There is no doubt that court staff and the judiciary work extremely hard to try to maintain as good a service as possible, but the reality is that separated couples who are wishing to resolve their differences quickly and cost effectively are increasingly being signposted toward other forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation and arbitration. (More about alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options here.) Indeed, my experience is that judges positively encourage couples to engage in out-of-court dispute resolution, with court proceedings increasingly being seen as a last resort.
Looking back over such a tumultuous year, I have very mixed feelings. Like the rest of us, I have experienced a wide range of emotions since March 2020. However, I have been inspired by the truly exceptional attitude of all of my Silk Family Law colleagues who have worked tirelessly to provide remarkable client service in the most challenging of circumstances. Despite these circumstances, we have welcomed the arrival of two new colleagues this year, who have strengthened our team.
I therefore look forward to seeing the back of 2020 – truly an “annus horribilis” but look forward equally to approaching 2021 with cautious optimism.
I would like to wish all of my fellow professionals within the family justice system, as well as our professional friends and colleagues in other sectors, and most of all our clients, a wonderful (socially distanced) Christmas and a healthy and happy 2021.
Blog post by Silk Family Law partner, Wayne Lynn.
Photo credits: Kelly Sikkema (top), David Veksler (2nd), Glenn Carstens-Peters (3rd) on Unsplash.