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Recent reports indicate that family courts are due to be inundated with divorce cases as a result of the pandemic. Relationships have experienced unprecedented strains due to the global crisis and mental health issues. In June 2020, Co-Op Legal Services suggested a 42% increase in divorce enquiries and Citizens Advice reported that the online searches for divorce had risen more significantly In July 2020. Citizens Advice outlined that weekly searches for ‘getting a divorce’ spiked to 14,000 and a 6,000 rise compared to the same period in 2019.
UK Law firm, Stewarts, reported equally concerning figures, suggesting that there has been a 122% increase in enquiries between July and October. These numbers have intensified further, and as of September 2020, there has been an alarming 25% rise in searches for divorce. Similar patterns have also been observed across the globe, with China and Sweden logging alarming rates of separations and divorces in light of lockdown measures.
Recession often acts as an integral factor in divorces, and as our economy continues to collapse, it is likely that the pandemic will instigate substantial spikes in divorce rates. As Tom MacInnes, chief analyst for Citizens Advice says: “We know that this pandemic has put an enormous strain on people financially, but our data shows that strain is also being felt in people’s relationships”.
The number of care proceedings has also increased significantly in the family courts. Judicial sources report that lockdown measures, coupled with financial instability, have compelled families to encounter toxic circumstances at the expense of their children. Some family lawyers have observed a substantial increase in urgent care proceedings, and with new spontaneous lockdowns being announced in line with the tier system rules, family practitioners can expect a further rise after the holidays.
It is widely recognised that the pressures of the pandemic will continue to create unprecedented challenges on relationships during 2021. Given the statistical spikes in divorce searches and separations, in light of lockdown restrictions, family practitioners anticipate that their jurisdiction will not be backlog free for long. To avoid the challenges endured by the CJS, we must ensure that technology is pressed more robustly in the family courts to keep up with the anticipated workload.
Are vulnerable people and technophobic lawyers falling behind?
The family legal system worked collectively to ensure the fairness of remote hearings. However, despite sustained efforts, there are particular challenges when it comes to digital proceedings involving vulnerable people. Also, concerns as to the difficulty of ensuring a just court process have been underlined throughout remote hearings in the family courts.
Some vulnerable parties to proceedings lack the resources to attend virtual hearings. Others find it challenging to engage with the process. Concerns have also been raised in respect of parents who may not feel their views are effectively heard through online proceedings. Although digital courts are necessary, remote justice is clearly not appropriate for everyone. It is therefore imperative that as the digital revolution takes hold, no one is left behind. Considering the anticipated number of cases looming large in 2021, the family courts may soon be overwhelmed at the expense of the vulnerable.
What is more, many family lawyers have highlighted challenges with preparing digital bundles. Due to the rapid introduction of E-Bundles, the sector has been ill-prepared to keep up with the changes. Utilising new software can be exceedingly difficult for a profession that is famously resistant to change. Yet, legal professionals that are accustomed to law tech are now leveraging the benefits of technology to negotiate sooner, communicate better and improve the understanding of their cases. Clients have also raised their digital expectations, demanding higher-tech competence by legal departments. In addition, due to shorter and more organised court commitments, clients expect more availability from family lawyers.
With this said, non-digital lawyers will be most at risk as we move forward with technology. The apparent skills gap must be bridged if we are to ensure that legal professionals can represent clients fearlessly and exercise confidence inside out of the courtroom. To stay ahead of the competition, family practitioners will have to familiarise themselves with the latest tech and adapt more quickly.