21st Apr 2020

Lockdown – A Family Lawyer during Covid-19

By David Allison

In this blog Family Law in Partnership director David Allison considers the changes that lockdown have had on his day to day practice as a leading family lawyer.

Who could have imagined a month ago how our lives would change and how quickly we would adapt to the ‘new normal’?  Of course I am referring to life in lockdown. I certainly never expected my Saturdays to entail queuing outside Sainsbury’s to do my weekly food shop, followed by cleaning and cooking before another night in with my long-suffering partner.

For many of us who came to London from the country one of the significant reasons we live here is because we are social animals and thrive in the hubbub of the city. Social isolation is therefore challenging on many levels and whilst another new normal – Zoom drinks – can break the monotony, they cannot replace a good night out with friends.

Of course, I recognise that I am immensely fortunate and that there are people on the front line risking their lives to care for people suffering from this horrible virus.  Families are losing loved ones at an alarming rate, with the pain heightened by not being able to mark their passing properly. A little social isolation is really the very the least we can do.

Working in Lockdown

I have worked from home occasionally for a few years and so this has been less challenging for me. What I had not done prior to lockdown is get to grips with the excellent video conferencing facilities that we have had at FLiP for some time. Nor have I previously been involved in court hearings, mediations and settlement meetings carried out in the virtual space. These have all become the new normal for me and I have to admit they have largely worked pretty well!

We probably all prefer to see people face to face than virtually and, of course, on the odd occasion when the technology fails, virtual meetings can be incredibly frustrating. This said I think we are all realising how much time was wasted prior to lockdown travelling to meetings and waiting for things to start. That ability to connect minutes before a meeting or hearing has been an eye opener and has enabled these things to be conducted much more efficiently than previously.

Mediation in Lockdown

Many of us would have said prior to lockdown that mediations should not be conducted remotely unless there is no other option. We all felt that the couple needed to be in the mediation room and to see each other face to face for mediation to be truly  effective.

My own experience of using video conferencing for mediations since lock down is that it can be really quite effective. It can be less intimidating for couples to sit in their respective living rooms with the mediator on screen rather than travelling to a lawyer’s office with the worry of bumping into their partner in the waiting room and/or showing their understandable emotions to the numerous people they would usually see on the journey to the mediation session. In the mediations I have been involved with since lockdown I have found that couples have been able to open up and to enter into meaningful discussions in a way that would often take more time face to face.

Settlement Hearings in Lockdown

For quite some years many financial claims on divorce have been resolved in private settlement hearings known as private Financial Dispute Resolution hearings (FDR’s). Private FDR’s mimic the court based FDR system but are generally more effective. Parties pay for a senior lawyer to act as ‘judge’ for the purpose of giving a non-binding indication of likely outcome if the case were to go to trial thus enabling an informed negotiation and usually agreement.

On one of my cases we had a long standing private FDR fixed for early April.  When lockdown was announced we arranged for it to be conducted virtually. It was a case with leading and junior counsel on each side and each of the conducting solicitors had a junior lawyer involved so numbers were not insignificant. The entire FDR was conducted using Zoom. We had a main room where the judge who was leading counsel in one chambers ‘held court’ and breakout rooms for the respective clients and their legal teams. The system requires the host to move individuals between rooms and so there was the occasional comical moment where I found myself in the wrong room but on the whole it worked really well.

One thing that worked much better than in a face to face hearing was the ability to pass messages to the barrister making submissions. In our virtual court only the judge and barristers had their cameras and microphones on. This enabled my client to send messages to me that I was able to email to leading counsel during the course of his submissions. That enabled him to weave the relevant comments into his submissions. And that would be simply impossible in normal circumstances.

The Future New Normal

I am sure that we are all desperate to get back to our old routines and to spend time with friends and colleagues. However, I am sure there will be advances that would never have happened but for lockdown – a new normal will develop that is actually more time efficient and in some respects more effective than before. It is perhaps a small silver lining on the very dark cloud of Covid-19 but one of the positives that I hope emerge from this crisis.

David Allison is a director at Family Law in Partnership. David acts for a wide range of individuals including business owners, entrepreneurs, bankers, other lawyers and their spouses. The focus of his practice is financial claims on divorce, particularly those with an international dimension, but he is also well known for his expertise in the legal issues affecting cohabitants, same sex couples and civil partners. Contact David at E: dna@flip.co.uk or T: 020 7420 5000.