Covid-19: Update from Nagalro
Check government guidance regularly
The Covid-19 outbreak imposes very significant challenges for all of us. Nagalro members including ISWs, Children’s Guardians and Family Court Advisers carry out extremely important work often under challenging circumstances. However, we must now change our practices at work and at home to protect the health and safety of ourselves and our families as well as the colleagues, children and families with whom we work.
This is a fast-changing situation; guidance and restrictions are likely to change many times over the coming days and weeks. Our priority is for the wellbeing of all during this period. Regrettably, clear rules are not always possible. We are in completely uncharted waters and there is a responsibility on us all to think about what we do and consider how we can make ourselves and others as safe as possible.
1. Nagalro urges all members to regularly check the guidance issued by the Government, regulators and health professionals and follow their advice. This includes the Department of Health and Social Care, Public Health England and your regulatory body such as Social Work England.
2. The President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane issued Covid-19 National Guidance for the Family Court on 19 March 2020. Download Guidance here The key points for practitioners are these:
a. Paragraph 2 ‘There is a strong public interest in the Family Justice System continuing to function as normally as possible despite the present pandemic. At the same time, in accordance with government guidance, there is a need for reasonable and sensible precautions to be taken to prevent infection and, in particular, to avoid non-essential personal contact.’
b. The default position will be that all Family Court hearings should be undertaken remotely by either email, telephone, video or Skype. These will be known as ‘remote hearings’.
c. Court-based hearings can still take place if:
i) Fairness and justice require such a hearing; and
ii) It is safe to conduct one.
d. The President identifies a number of types of case which are suitable for remote hearing including:
i) Emergency Protection Orders;
ii) Interim Care Orders;
iii) Issue Resolution Hearings;
vi) Simple, short contested cases
e. If it is possible, hearings which are currently listed for the parties to attend should be heard remotely. If this is not possible then it should be adjourned and listed promptly for a remote directions hearing to consider how the hearing should be dealt with.
f. Even urgent hearings should, if at all possible, be conducted remotely.
3. On 20 March 2020, directions were issued for remote hearings in the Central, West and East London Family Courts and a copy of these directions are here .
4. Mr Justice MacDonald has prepared a very full and detailed paper ‘The Remote Access Family Court’ version 2 of which is available here . This explains a lot of the practical issues about how hearings can take place remotely. It is primarily written for the barristers and solicitors who will have to organise these hearings. Nagalro has prepared a separate document which will give guidance to ISWs and Children’s Guardians about how they can take part in remote hearings, including giving evidence as an expert witness. Download our summary here.
5. On 18 March 2020 it was announced that schools would close indefinitely on 20 March 2020 but would continue to provide support for vulnerable children such as those on child protection plans and children in need. The schools will also provide care for the children of key workers. The DfE guidance on this includes social workers in the critical sectors who will be able to continue to take their children to school if necessary. A message from the Lord Chancellor on 20 March 2020 confirms that ‘Cafcass social workers’ are included in the list of key workers, along with anyone required to attend court as a witness, which must, we believe, include an expert witness such as an ISW. Download guidance here.
6. On 22 March 2020, the Government published guidance on ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance on vulnerable children and young people’. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guidance-on-vulnerable-children-and-young-people
7. On 23 March 2020, far more draconian restrictions were announced by the Government which will, very soon, be backed up by legal powers. These restrictions require:
a. Everyone to stay at home, save for four limited purposes which are:
i) Shopping for basic necessities as infrequently as possible.
ii) One form of exercise a day, either alone or with members of your household.
iii) Any medical need or to care for or help a vulnerable person. The guidance makes it clear that this exemption includes key workers taking their children to school and, where the parents do not live together, moving the child from one parent’s home to the other for the purpose of contact arrangements.
iv) Travelling to and from work, but only if this absolutely cannot be done from home.
b. All non-essential shops and community spaces are immediately closed
c. All public gatherings of more than two people are prohibited. There are only two exceptions to this:
i) Where the gathering is of people who all live together. This would allow a parent to take their children to the shops or supervise them on a walk to get some exercise.
ii) Where the gathering is essential for work purposes ‘but workers should be trying to minimise all meetings and other gatherings in the workplace’
8. It is relevant to point out that Cafcass has closed all its offices and is now only working remotely. Cafcass will not be carrying out any face-to-face assessments.
In the light of the above, how should ISWs approach their work?
9. The current restrictions are designed to save lives. Covid-19 is a very serious illness. Although, for many, the illness may be fairly mild, it is highly contagious and for others it is potentially fatal. The numbers who may require hospital treatment are capable of overwhelming the health service and deaths will not only occur from Covid-19 but also among those who cannot receive treatment because all the intensive care beds are taken up with Covid-19 sufferers. Nagalro members should therefore follow not only the letter but the spirit of these restrictions.
10. Nagalro advises its members to refer to the guidance from the President and Government regarding face to face meetings. Nagalro members do not have access to, or the training to use, protective clothing and equipment necessary, not only for their own protection, but to prevent them from carrying an infection into the household of the people being assessed. People can be infectious for several days before they show any symptoms, or no symptoms at all and none of us would wish to be responsible for passing on a potentially fatal illness.
11. Members need to consider whether the work they have been instructed to do can be carried out remotely, for example, by telephone or by one of the various video conferencing platforms which are available. This is a matter for your professional judgment. If you take the view that remote working is not appropriate then you must immediately inform the court for further instructions and inform the lead solicitor on the instructions. The court will have to decide whether to make a (perhaps) interim decision based on a limited assessment which has caveats attaching to it or whether matters should be adjourned until the work can be carried out safely. This is not your decision to make. Nagalro is planning to bring this issue to the attention of the President of the Family Division.
12. There has been confusion and concern about how the restrictions announced on 23 March 2020 impact child arrangement orders which require children to live with one parent and spend time with the other. On 24 March 2020 the President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane issued some guidance to help with this problem and you can read the details of it here. The Guidance confirms that moving a child from one parent to another is permitted but emphasises the need for parents to communicate with each other sensibly about the best arrangements which can be made in these very difficult times. There is a clear message that where there are concerns about whether an arrangement in an order is safe, the contact should not be simply ended. Instead alternatives should be implemented such as contact by Facetime, WhatsApp, Skype and so forth.
For the time being Nagalro will hold internal Officer and Council meetings by video link / skype and postpone other non-urgent meetings. Nagalro has a number of planned training events from June onwards. Depending on the evolving situation these may need to be postponed to a later date. Delegates will be informed directly.
Whilst these notes are prepared for the guidance of Nagalro members, please feel free to share them with any other professionals who may find them useful.
Our thoughts are with Nagalro members, their families and our many colleagues in other organisations during these very difficult times.
Nagalro Council on 25 March 2020