Parties in family actions should be able to participate in remote hearings, including telephone hearings if they wish, the Lord President has written in response to concerns raised.
The subject was one of three issues raised with Lord Carloway by the organisation Shared Parenting Scotland, which supports family members not resident with a child in maintaining contact. The other issues raised were the current inability of contact centres to facilitate supervised contact (though Shared Parenting Scotland understands that a number of centres are now resuming at least some services), and an apparent buildup of new child contact and residence cases to add to the backlog that already exists.
Replying to the organisation's letter Lord Carloway wrote: "There is no policy in place in either the Court of Session or in the sheriff court which has the effect that any party is excluded from a hearing.… It is fundamental to justice being done that parties can participate effectively in court hearings."
On contact centres, the Lord President replied: "They are a valuable resource which is utilised frequently by the judiciary, the legal profession and child welfare reporters, to support contact between children and their families in a safe environment… I can assure you, however, that judges, including sheriffs, are aware of the current position in relation to their availability and capacity. Judges will continue to give this due consideration when deciding on the most appropriate disposal in family cases."
Lord Carloway also referred to his updated family guidance of 16 July that stresses that court orders should be complied with and that there are now very few possible COVID-19 reasons for disrupting contact. It further reminds parents that if a case returns to court the judge will look at whether any parent has acted unreasonably in withholding contact.
He stated: "It is hoped that separated parents will adhere to this guidance and no 'surge' in cases of this nature will occur."
Shared Parenting Scotland national manager, Ian Maxwell, commented: "It is encouraging that the Lord President replied so fully and speedily to our concerns and is so clearly committed to finding ways of speeding up and expediting business. Many of the parents and grandparents who contact us feel the COVID-19 emergency has been exploited to disrupt or stop contact entirely where there are no issues of competence or safety. We are looking to the courts to take the dim view of such behaviour outlined in the updated guidance of 16 July."