Concern virtual childcare hearings may lead to parents posting footage online
Cases heard by judge sitting in physical courtroom while other parties use videolink
The family law division of the District Court was one of the last jurisdictions to introduce remote hearings. Photograph: Alan Betson
Family law practitioners have raised concerns that virtual childcare hearings will result in aggrieved parents uploading footage of cases to the internet.
On May 19th, the president of the District Court, Colin Daly, issued a practice direction stating virtual court cases, where the parties dial in using video conferencing software, can be used for family law cases.
The family law division of the District Court was one of the last jurisdictions to introduce remote hearings to reduce the need for parties to come to court during the coronavirus pandemic.
The judge’s direction allows parents, children and their legal representatives to appear in court virtually, providing “it would not give rise to unfairness to the parties or would otherwise be contrary to the interests of justice”.
The cases are heard by a judge sitting in a physical courtroom while the other parties dial in.
The move has been broadly welcomed by family law practitioners but some have raised concerns virtual hearings will make it easier for parties to breach the strict in-camera rules surrounding such cases.
In recent years, increasing numbers of parents involved in childcare proceedings have published details of their cases on social media, including instances where the children involved have been identified. In one recent case a woman was jailed for repeatedly publishing details of her case on Facebook, despite the judge’s warnings.
Those working in the area of family law have raised concerns that remote hearings will make it easier for disgruntled parents to record audio and video of proceedings and upload them to the internet.
“These are often the bitterest cases you can imagine,” according to one barrister who asked not to be named due to their involvement in an ongoing, sensitive case. “In many cases one side or the other feels incredibly frustrated or angry and feel like they have to tell the world. They feel that way even after the judge warns them they could go to jail.”
Family law barrister Rachel Baldwin said there is concern surrounding the issue. “People have been caught recording in court even before this.”
Solicitor Gareth Noble said the prospect of participants breaching the in-camera rule through videoing or recording virtual proceedings “is a very real and live concern”.
However, he added the District Court appears to be approaching the matter in a “slow and careful manner”.
Dr Carol Coulter, who has been monitoring the rollout of virtual family courts through the Childcare Law Reporting Project, said the use of remote hearings would make it easier for people to defy the in-camera ruling but that she does not envision it being a major issue if the technology is only used for routine matters.
“It is a concern but so far the remote hearings have been confined to quite uncontested matters. I’m not sure if they’ll ever be used for very contested cases.”
To date, there have been no known cases of footage of remote family court hearings being uploaded publicly.
At the start of every case the parties are warned to treat the proceedings as if they were taking place in an actual court. Each party must also give an undertaking not to record the case.
A spokesman for the Court Service said it has developed good links with social media companies so that court footage can be quickly removed from the internet if it is uploaded.
The penalties for breaching the in-camera rules in remote hearings are the same as those for physical hearings. A breach is considered a criminal offence and is punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to €50,000.