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COVID-19 and the family justice system

At a time of huge disruption, how can we ensure that emerging practice meets the needs of children and parents experiencing the family justice system?

Our aim is to inform decision-making in the family justice system by examining how changes to practice during COVID-19 have been experienced by children, families and professionals.

A man and a girl sit at a laptop together.

Why we need research into COVID-19 and the family justice system


The coronavirus pandemic has had a severe impact on the lives of families, with long term implications for vulnerable children and parents, and the services which support them.

Lockdowns and social distancing measures introduced in the immediate aftermath of the outbreak meant professionals across the family justice system had to make rapid decisions about the support that could be provided.

But as social distancing measures have endured, and may do for some time to come, it is important that significant changes to practice, whether in the family courts or children’s services, are grounded in evidence about what delivers the best outcomes for the children and families they support.

There are already lessons to be learnt about how practice could be improved within the boundaries of COVID-19 restrictions to ensure both empathy and fairness for all those involved, as well as examples of innovation to inspire system planning into the future.

What we are doing


  • Nuffield FJO swiftly pivoted its research agenda in early 2020 to examine what was happening under lockdown, and in particular how changes were affecting children and families, as well as professionals.
  • At the request of Sir Andrew McFarlane, President of the Family Division, we ran two consultations on remote practice in the family court to find out how audio and video hearings were being experienced. More than 2,300 parents, relatives and professionals took part, painting a valuable—and difficult—picture of how virtual courts were performing in delivering justice for families.
  • More than 500 parents and professionals took part in our consultation on the implications of ‘virtual’ child protection conferences. The study was carried out by King’s College London and highlighted concerns about the experiences of families.
  • We carried out rapid studies during the first UK lockdown with NatCen Social Research and the University of East Anglia into how contact between children and their families was being managed and the effects of digital contact on well-being.
  • Throughout the pandemic, we have provided data analysis and evidence to help inform decision making in the family justice system, and worked with partners to investigate how research could be used to test and potentially scale up innovative approaches introduced by those on the practice front.

Explore our research on COVID-19

Resource

COVID-19 | 2020

Child protection conference practice during COVID-19: Reflections and experiences (rapid consultation September–October 2020)

Child protection conferences are a key stage of the child protection system in England and Wales, where professionals come together to identify and address serious concerns about child abuse and neglect that have led them to believe a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. All…

Resource type

Report
Summary

Region

England
Wales

Methodology

Consultation
Qualitative
View resource
View resource
Project

COVID-19 | Remote hearings | 2020 – 2020

Remote hearings in the family justice system

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the introduction of social distancing measures, the family courts in England and Wales have rapidly adapted to using telephone and video hearings. In light of this significant change, the President of the Family Division asked the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory to…

Type

Project
View project
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Resource

COVID-19 | Remote hearings | 2020

Remote hearings in the family justice system: reflections and experiences (September 2020)

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the introduction of social distancing measures, the family courts in England and Wales rapidly adapted to using telephone and video hearings. In light of this significant change, the President of the Family Division asked the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory to undertake…

Resource type

Report

Region

England
Wales

Methodology

Consultation
Qualitative
View resource
View resource
Resource

Contact | COVID-19 | 2020

Contact during lockdown: How are children and their birth families keeping in touch?

On 23 March 2020 the UK government directed the public to severely restrict in-person contact and travel outside the home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This ‘lockdown’ presents significant barriers to children in local authority care, in kinship care, with special guardians, or adopted spending time face-to-face with…

Resource type

Report
Summary

Region

England
Northern Ireland
Scotland
Wales

Methodology

Consultation
Qualitative
View resource
View resource
Resource

COVID-19 | Remote hearings | 2020

Remote hearings in the family justice system: a rapid consultation

Following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the introduction of social distancing measures, the family courts in England and Wales have rapidly adapted to using telephone and video hearings. In the two-week period between 23 March and 6 April 2020 audio hearings across all courts and tribunals in…

Resource type

Report

Region

England
Wales

Methodology

Consultation
Qualitative
View resource
View resource
Resource

COVID-19 | 2020

What we know about the impact of remote hearings on access to justice: a rapid evidence review

This briefing paper highlights the main findings of a rapid evidence review undertaken during April 2020 by Dr Natalie Byrom, Director of Research and Learning, Legal Education Foundation. The coronavirus pandemic has required the justice system in England and Wales to pivot rapidly to remote working. In the family justice…

Resource type

Report

Region

International

Methodology

Consultation
Qualitative
View resource
View resource

Infographic

What do we know about children in the family justice system?

Our infographic pulls together what we know, and what we don’t know, about children’s journeys through the family justice system from national data.

COVID-19 early data snapshots

In March and April 2020 we produced a series of ‘snapshots’ showcasing what we knew about the early impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including on the children’s social care workforce, the children most likely to be affected and the use of remote hearings.



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