14th Apr 2020

Coronavirus and Divorce – working together online

By Daniel Coombes

The Coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown has made face to face meetings between lawyers and clients virtually impossible. In this blog FLiP director Daniel Coombes explains how FLiP can work with you using the latest technology to successfully resolve your family law issues.

Coronavirus – the practicalities

With the current enforced ‘lockdown’, you may be wondering how the practicalities of instructing us will work. In fact, we at Family Law in Partnership were working on a ‘paperless’ basis before the Coronavirus pandemic and many of our solicitors already worked from home at least occasionally – so we had a head start in many respects. However, there are some differences in this new ‘lockdown’ world we all occupy.

First meetings:

Firstly, initial meetings are now only conducted remotely – by way of video conferencing (previously, this was most common with our international clients only). There are of course many software packages enabling video conferencing (such as Zoom and Skype) and most people now have at least some experience of them, even if just speaking with friends and family. They all tend to operate in a very similar way.

We can be flexible as to the system used but our primary system is ‘Starleaf’, which you can use without having to download any software; we simply send you a meeting invite and provided you can get online you will be able to access the meeting. It is secure and very straightforward to use.

Next steps:

Beyond the first meeting, communications take place pretty much just as they would have done before the lockdown: you will be able to reach all relevant members of FLiP by telephone and by email. If any further meetings are required, they will be conducted by way of video conferencing.

Dealing with emails and documents:

All emails sent and received on your case are filed on our electronic case management software. This means that, once filed (which most often happens automatically), everyone at FLiP who is involved with your matter can access that email and will be up to date with events – even if the sender (including your spouse/partner’s lawyer) did not copy in other members of the team at FLiP. Similarly, all court documents and other filed documentation is available and accessible by all of the team at FLiP.

If we need to send you very large documents, we can use a system which sends you a web link so that you can retrieve those documents when convenient to you and save them somewhere appropriate, rather than having to wait for large emails to download, or have them rejected by servers due to the file size.

When sending you large pdfs, we can ‘bookmark’ them, so that you can ‘jump’ to specific pages of the document. We can also make them ‘searchable’, so you can more easily find content that you are looking for.

Meeting with your barrister:

We work with all of the leading family law barristers and they have video conferencing facilities too – so we can meet with you and your barrister, albeit remotely, just as we used to before the lockdown. Indeed, for some clients, this is much more convenient than travelling – and can actually help reduce costs.

What about from your perspective?

For some, the lockdown means they have more time available for giving instructions and progressing their case. Therefore, perhaps counter-intuitively, some cases can actually be concluded more quickly than they would otherwise.

If you are currently in lockdown with your spouse / partner, that can make confidentiality an issue at your end – we are finding that some clients prefer to deal with things by email rather than by telephone / video conferencing calls. Others, are arranging to speak when they go for their daily exercise walk, or are sitting in their car to make calls.

How are the courts working?

The area where the lockdown is having the most impact is in relation to the courts.

Different courts are taking different approaches but, generally speaking, they are operating a skeleton staff and physical court hearings in the building are now a rarity, limited to extremely urgent and important matters that cannot be dealt with by way of video conferencing or telephone hearings – which is how most court hearing are currently being conducted.

These remote hearings often work surprisingly well. Those who have already been to court may be familiar with the usual hanging around, waiting to get in front of a judge. Each court is, of course, different and some days may run more efficiently than others, but, generally, matters are keeping to a more strict timetable as the court needs to dial in all parties and the judge etc.

Unfortunately, many court hearings have been adjourned – sometimes with everybody’s consent but, on other occasions, the court has taken this step regardless. No one knows exactly how things will develop but it is expected that, once capacity improves, there will be a pretty significant backlog of adjourned hearings to work through.

Alternatives to using the courts:

In light of all this, more and more people are opting out of the court process and are using other means to resolve the issues arising in their case.

We are successfully running video mediation sessions (where we are not providing legal advice – rules prohibit all law firms doing both) and lawyer assisted settlement meetings are proving very popular. These can be conducted with the assistance of a neutral third party acting as a ‘judge’ (known as a ‘Private FDR’ or ‘Early Neutral Evaluation’), or without.  Virtual ‘rooms’ are set up – you and your solicitor and barrister would be in one room, your spouse / partner and their legal team would be in another and then there would be a third room – occupied by the private judge, or vacant for the two barristers to meet and exchange offers etc.

Where an adjudicated outcome is sought, but the court is being avoided, parties are making use of arbitration which can also be concluded effectively using video conferencing.

Once a settlement (or arbitrated outcome) has been reached, where appropriate, it is possible to submit the terms to the court electronically for the outcome to be approved by a judge. Again, FLiP was ahead of the curve and, prior to the lockdown, we had already signed up to the HMCTS online portal so that divorces and financial consent orders could be submitted and approved online much more quickly and efficiently than relying on the paper system.

At FLiP we offer exceptional legal expertise combined with intelligent and creative solutions to help you through the difficulties you may face. We are market leaders in family mediation, arbitration and the collaborative approach and we pioneered the use of private FDRs. We are confident that our technology and best practice together with our unrivaled expertise in out of court process options, will ensure the highest levels of service to our clients during this uncertain time.

For more information on how we can help you to resolve your family law issues, please contact Family Law in Partnership director Daniel Coombes on E: dc@flip.co.uk or T: 020 7420 5000 or contact any other member of our team of top London divorce and family lawyers.