When court hearings are largely video conferences, support work is delivered remotely and multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) meet virtually, the challenges of maintaining the services of Family Drug and Alcohol Courts (FDACs) have been huge.
The ten FDACs that exist across England root their practice in a therapeutic and relationship-based model, using the power of trusting relationships to provide a supportive but challenging atmosphere in which parents can address their substance misuse and improve their parenting. So how have these services – which are so reliant on the power of human relationships – operated effectively during times of social distancing?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the FDACs have been creative in adapting their support to families. Extra effort is being made by teams and judges everywhere to maintain and develop their trusting relationships with parents. But developing a therapeutic relationship online is tough so FDAC practitioners across the country have increased their support levels to parents, often checking in several times a day.
In Leeds FDAC, the team has sent care packages to parents, including not only intervention work, but nappies, cleaning products and snacks. At the height of the pandemic, judges in the Pan-Bedfordshire FDAC, in recognition of the importance of the interpersonal relationships between judge and parents, negotiated to hold their informal Non-Lawyer Reviews weekly to maintain parents’ motivation when other services had fallen away. The switch to remote technology has had some benefits for FDACs, especially those in rural counties like Gloucestershire, where it has reduced staff travel time and increased attendance at important team planning meetings.
Surprisingly, COVID-19 has spurred the trialling of new methods of drug-testing. Normal methods, like breathalyser or blood tests, are risky in the current environment and many sites have ceased all but essential testing. The new Black Country FDAC team based in Walsall is run through the substance misuse agency Change Grow Live. They have been experimenting with portable fingerprint drug screening devices which test a sample of sweat from the fingertip for drugs and their metabolites. A less invasive alternative to typical collection methods, the approach has proved popular with parents and staff, and may be adopted by other sites in the future.
Despite this innovation, different courts around the country have had varied levels of success with the technology needed to hold successful virtual Family Court hearings, as the Nuffield Foundation report on Remote Hearings has shown. Attending court virtually is more difficult for parents, especially those who have mental health issues, learning difficulties or need an interpreter. Some parents do not have access to the necessary technology, and for many it is impossible to be in a separate space from children and others during their hearings. This is especially risky when parents are living with abusive partners. Many FDACs have set up quasi-court spaces in their offices so parents can attend remote hearings in a safe space, alongside their key worker. Not only has this helped to overcome some of the issues mentioned above, but it has ensured parents are not on their own during potentially tough and emotional hearings.
Thinking forward to the future, there may be surprising opportunities that COVID-19 offers to both FDACs and the wider system, including improving the physical layout of courtrooms. Before the pandemic, FDAC judges found conducting hearings in a conventional court set-up more challenging. Traditionally, the judge’s bench is elevated meaning they tower above parents, making for an especially difficult environment in which to conduct a Non-Lawyer Review. I have even seen judges rearrange the court themselves in order to put parents at ease.
As courts return more routinely to hearings in person, it will be necessary to physically rearrange court rooms to provide socially distanced spaces. Perhaps this is an opportunity to consider more than just maintaining a two metre distance? In the Central Family Court in London, for example, FDAC hearings take place in a room which has been laid out in the round. Each parent sits next to their representative in a semi-circle, with the judge at the top. This set-up makes a far more inclusive atmosphere than standard courtroom layouts where parents, sitting behind their lawyers, feel like the least important people in the room. The necessity to adapt court layouts could prove an unexpected success in a post-COVID world.
It is also becoming clear from the research that not all video conferencing courts are equally fair. Those in which everyone is beamed in remotely are more egalitarian than other remote access methods where some attendees (usually court professionals) are physically located together in a court, while others (litigants) appear remotely. If care proceedings continue to need to be held virtually, important questions need to resolved: what is the default virtual option and who has the deciding say in how the hearing is held - the court, the lawyers or the litigants?
The pandemic is placing a huge strain on everyone involved in care proceedings and on our family justice system in general. But the difficulties have also shone a light on the value of a non-adversarial and therapeutic approach in public law. It has been heartening to hear that during this time, parents have been keen to check in regularly with FDAC teams or speak to their judge once a week rather than fortnightly. In a context where judges, lawyers and social workers report the daily struggle of engaging parents in remote hearings, the practice of FDAC judges and practitioners should be of interest to other courts.
It is clearer than ever that the FDAC method has a wealth of good practice to share with the system more widely. At this time of unprecedented change and rupture, we should see adapting our courts to social distancing as an opportunity to embed more participatory principles in family justice.