Child Welfare Hearings go online for trial period

Child Welfare Hearings in Tayside, Central and Fife are moving to the online Cisco Webex platform following a pilot carried out in Forfar and Stirling sheriff courts.

This replaces the telephone conference hearings that became the standard as courts resumed business after the lockdown last March.  Sheriff Principal Marysia Lewis has announced that following evaluation of this initial pilot the video hearings  will commence in Dunfermline, Falkirk and Perth Sheriff Courts with effect from 1st March 2021; and in Alloa, Dundee and Kirkcaldy Sheriff Courts with effect from 1st April 2021.

A very small number of child welfare hearings have taken place with parents actually attending court in the period since March 2020, but it is likely that online video hearings will be the norm until Covid-related restrictions have ceased.

This change is to be welcomed for a number of reasons.

It is really important that the sheriff has the chance to see both parents during a hearing and just as important that the parents see the sheriff and hear what is said to them.  Teleconference hearings are sometimes taking place with only lawyers attending, which defeats some of the essential purpose of a child welfare hearing, which is to take stock of the issues and work out how they can be resolved.

Parents who are reluctant to attend child welfare hearings in person because they don’t want to be sitting opposite their ex-partner are likely to find it easier to take part in a video conference hearing.

And anyone who has sat through an entire morning or afternoon waiting for their case to be called will welcome the scheduling of these video hearings in set half-hour slots, with double slots available if required.

During the pandemic the courts have encouraged people to submit written submissions two days before the child welfare hearing, allowing sheriffs to make some decisions without requiring an actual hearing.   This move towards concise submissions and a triaging process will hopefully remain as part of the case management which has been promised in Scottish courts for a long time.  If teleconference hearings allow for swift determination of issues raised at child welfare hearings while still preserving the need for parents to be present, we may see it becoming a standard part of the family court process beyond the current restrictions.