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1 April 2020

Coronavirus: Family Courts in Partial Lockdown

What are the alternatives for families during the outbreak?

The courts remain open to some cases with hearings being heard by telephone or video links such as Business for Skype and Zoom. These are the most urgent cases, some perhaps where a person or child’s safety may be in issue. A court application may not, in any event, be the best first option for most cases.

  1. Mediation

Specialist family mediators have been available for some time now. They offer a way to discuss issues in a more informal environment than through a court application. A mediator is a neutral person, there to help you and your ex-partner talk things through in a balanced way and reach an agreement.

Before mediation gets underway, parties will have an individual intake session with the mediator to discuss the process and decide if it is right for them. If the mediator and parties are happy, joint sessions then take place.

If an agreement is found, this can be made into a binding court order with the parties consent.

  1. Arbitration

An accredited arbitrator’s decision is binding upon the parties. Most arbitrators will offer to hear disputes involving children and financial claims. It can be used to resolve an entire case or a single issue. Arbitration can be dealt with ‘on paper’ with, or without, a ‘virtual attendance’.

Unlike a judge in court, once an arbitrator is appointed they stay with the case throughout. Parties can agree an entirely bespoke way forward with the arbitrator which can then see a conclusion within weeks. This gives certainty and peace of mind to both parties with the option of bringing matters to a swift conclusion.

  1. Collaborative Lawyers

Some solicitors are trained in collaborative law. If parties choose this process, they agree to find a solution during roundtable meetings with each party and both lawyers present. Anchor statements are agreed at the outset stating what the parties wish to achieve for themselves and their families for the future. Discussions are all ‘off the record’ until an agreement is reached which can then be made into a binding court order by consent.

In the event the parties fail to settle, the collaborative lawyers step back and the parties must instruct new solicitors if a court application is then to be made. As with arbitration, parties can make this process a swift and bespoke way of dealing with family issues but it is often less formal than arbitration.

  1. Solicitor Roundtable Meetings

Most family law solicitors will arrange meetings with both parties and both lawyers present to work through issues to find a settlement. Discussions are usually ‘off the record’ in the same way as with the mediator and collaborative lawyer. Again, any resolution can become binding through a court order. If the settlement cannot be found, the lawyers can then refer the parties to mediation, arbitration or issue a court application.

Practical Issues

All of the above now use virtual platforms such as Zoom, Skype and telephone conference calls. These can be arranged at times and dates convenient to the parties enabling the process to move forward at a pace everyone is comfortable with.

Fixed Fees

These are available for most of the above. You should enquire at the outset what the arrangements are and agree these with your mediator/arbitrator/solicitor/collaborative lawyer and your ex-partner. You should agree how they are to be shared with the other party.

If you would like to discuss any of the points raised in our Coronavirus Family Courts Lockdown article or would like further options available to you at this challenging time please contact Sally Harris on sharris@steeleslaw.co.uk or Sally Briggs on sbriggs@steeleslaw.co.uk. Our family law team can be reached by telephone on 01603 589000.

*The information provided in this article is designed to provide useful information on the subject, not to provide specific legal advice.

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