Empathy in the Family Courts

The practice of remote hearings in the family court can and does challenge the features of fairness and empathy.

There is more to a successful hearing than providing administrative and practical IT support to participants and particularly to Litigants in Person.  Many parents are taking part in hearings remotely on their own and from their homes, often without the support they need to properly take part in crucial, complex, intimidating, unfamiliar and adversarial hearings at which life-changing decisions are made about themselves and their children.

In cases involving allegations of domestic abuse, respondents to proceedings taking part in various hearings can feel re-traumatised and unsafe when they have to listen to or see their alleged abuser from their own home (often bedrooms).

Life-changing decisions must be reached fairly for all involved. The family court is often dealing with vulnerable people, from victims of domestic abuse to individuals with learning difficulties, mental health issues, disabilities and language barriers. Everyone who is taking part in the family courts deserves the respect to be treated as an individual and valued in their individuality. They have a right to be supported in order to fully participate.

The overriding objective

The Family Procedure Rules, FPR, are subject to an overriding objective:-

“of enabling the court to deal with cases justly, having regard to the welfare issues involved.
(2) Dealing with a case justly includes, so far as is practicable –

(a) ensuring that it is dealt with expeditiously and fairly;
(b) dealing with the case in ways which are proportionate to the nature, importance and complexity of the issues;
(c) ensuring that the parties are on an equal footing;
(d) saving expense; and
(e) allotting to it an appropriate share of the court’s resources, while taking into account the need to allot resources to other cases.

Dealing with a case justly then, should embrace the concept of compassion, empathy and understanding for applicants and respondents alike, particularly if they are litigants in person representing themselves in a theatre of the unknown. Fear is a major immobilizer, anxiety a crushing restriction. If we are to create a situation where all participants are “on an equal footing” as the Overriding Objective highlights, then it is crucial to understand the importance of empathy in creating fairness, otherwise remote hearings will likely continue to see the alienation and isolation of one human from the other.