The Family Public Law service lets users submit an online application for a court order to make arrangements for a child or resolve a dispute about their upbringing. A few months ago we updated on how we helped local authorities to support vulnerable children, by making improvements to the online service and adapting to the impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
All designated family court sites now use the service. As we get ready to roll the service out nationally, I've been reflecting on how the service has helped public law cases to continue and what our next steps will be.
Safeguarding children throughout the COVID-19 pandemic
The Family Public Law digital service enables legal representatives to view a case online. All legal representatives have access to the application and can help it progress. For example, a judge or legal advisor can make an initial assessment of a case, a local authority can upload the court bundle for representatives to view and solicitors can add the parents’ statement to the file.
The online service is flexible and can be accessed from any device or location. This was pivotal when ensuring that safeguarding vulnerable children continued during the pandemic. As Lisa Thomas from Swansea City Council explains:
“With the advent of COVID the service has allowed a much smoother transition for us than would otherwise have been the case. All files with us are paperless and the ability to issue and manage a case online has allowed the work from home arrangements to be seamless.
“Uploading of CMOs and case management docs, orders are approved very quickly, which is very useful in terms of service on others. Orders being available electronically in the current climate has also meant that trips to the office have been avoided. The court using the court portal for bundles has saved both time and money, and has allowed bundles to be updated easily.”
National rollout and mandating the service
The service is now used by all 44 designated family judge court sites across England and Wales. This means every local authority and legal professional firm can sign up. Over 80 local authorities are using the service and saving valuable time. Judges and legal professionals are viewing bundles at hearings and collaborating on draft orders that are being approved faster and providing more time to for parties to comply with directions.
In coming months we’ll work closely with the senior judiciary, Ministry of Justice policy teams and our stakeholder groups on when the service should become mandatory. This means it would be the default method for submitting applications and managing public law cases in the future.
Listening to feedback
We’ve listened closely to feedback from local authorities on increasing flexibility and reflecting different ways public services are delivered. As a result, local authority legal teams can now add and manage legal representatives on digital cases. This means they can access case documents, upload evidence and view case information at any time.
Local authorities can also add respondents’ legal representatives at the point of issuing an application. Representatives are notified as soon as they've been added to a case, allowing them to react quickly to urgent cases.
Respondents' representatives can also add themselves to a case, reducing workloads for local authority teams and simplifying the way applications are managed. Respondents' representatives registered with our online system, MyHMCTS, can complete a Notice of Acting/Change on MyHMCTS. We'll inform them if the request to a local authority was successful. Once approved, they will be able to act on cases in the normal way.
What’s next for the family public law service?
We’ll be contacting local authorities and legal professionals not yet using the service with all the information they need to sign up to MyHMCTS. We’ll continue to listen to feedback and suggestions for improving the service so that local authorities can act as quickly as possible to achieve the best outcomes for vulnerable children.