Last October the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby got mad. The object of his annoyance was a local authority that had failed to comply with an order requiring it to file statements.
The case was Re W (A Child), in which parents were opposing the making of adoption orders in respect of their children. Sir James made the position clear. He said:
“The court is entitled to expect – and from now on family courts will demand – strict compliance with all such orders. Non-compliance with orders should be expected to have and will usually have a consequence.”
He went on:
“Let me spell it out. An order that something is to be done by 4 pm on Friday, is an order to do that thing by 4 pm on Friday, not by 4.21 pm on Friday let alone by 3.01 pm the following Monday or sometime later the following week. A person who finds himself unable to comply timeously with his obligations under an order should apply for an extension of time before the time for compliance has expired. It is simply not acceptable to put forward as an explanation for non-compliance with an order the burden of other work. If the time allowed for compliance with an order turns out to be inadequate the remedy is either to apply to the court for an extension of time or to pass the task to someone else who has available the time in which to do it.”
“Non-compliance with an order, any order, by anyone is bad enough. It is a particularly serious matter if the defaulter is a public body such as a local authority. And it is also a particularly serious matter if the order goes to something as vitally important as [the] order did in this case: the right of a parent facing the permanent loss of their child to know what case is being mounted against them by a public authority.”
Sir James returned to this issue shortly after giving this judgment, in his 7th View from the President’s Chambers. There, he said:
“What …. is for me a real concern – is something symptomatic of a deeply rooted culture in the family courts which, however long established, will no longer be tolerated. I refer to the slapdash, lackadaisical and on occasions almost contumelious attitude which still far too frequently characterises the response to orders made by family courts. There is simply no excuse for this. Orders … must be obeyed and complied with to the letter and on time. Too often they are not. They are not preferences, requests or mere indications; they are orders. This principle applies as much to orders by way of interlocutory case management directions as to any other species of order. The court is entitled to expect – and from now on family courts will demand – strict compliance with all such orders. Both parties and non-parties to whom orders are addressed must take heed … Non-compliance with orders should be expected to have and will usually have a consequence…”
The recently published judgment in M v F, which was actually handed down very shortly after the President’s comments, shows that the requirement to comply with orders applies equally to the police force.
M v F was a private law case concerning the arrangements for three children. The mother alleged that the father had physically abused both the children and her. The father denied this. The police had been involved and, in order to get to the bottom of the allegations, Mrs Justice Parker ordered them to disclose documents, including copies of the statements they had taken and transcripts of the interviews they had had with the mother, the father and the children.
The police failed to comply with the order. The police had known that they would not be able to comply with the order in time, but did not seek a time extension. As a result, Mrs Justice Parker was not able to proceed with the case when the hearing began.
Mrs Justice Parker reminded the police of what the President had said:
“The President has recently reinforced the message, which ought to be well-known to all, that court orders have to be obeyed, whether the subject of that order likes the order or not.”
She went on to penalise the police for their failure, by making a costs order against them.
I do hope that this case, showing as it does that no one is exempt from the requirement to comply with court orders, will help to get the message out that family court orders must be obeyed. I certainly recall from my days practising that many litigants, and even their lawyers, took a pretty nonchalant attitude towards court orders, especially ‘interlocutory’ orders made in the course of proceedings, as with the orders in the two cases referred to above. If such orders are obeyed on time then a major cause of delay will be eradicated, not to mention the frustration of the judiciary and, of course, of the other parties involved.
Photo by John Halbrook via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence