Only last April the family justice system went through what the President of the Family Division then described as its largest reform “any of us have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes”. One would have thought therefore, just four months further on, that the profession might now be able to relax, happy in the knowledge that, for a while at least, there will be no more change.
Not so. The pace of change shows no sign of slowing. On Tuesday two documents were circulated by the President that herald yet more change for beleaguered users of the family justice system. First we had the Report of the Financial Remedies Working Group (‘FRWG’), whose task is “to explore ways of improving the accessibility of the system for litigants in person and to identify ways of further improving good practice in financial remedy cases … confined to matters of practice and procedure”. Then we had the Interim Report of the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group which, as its name suggests, is reviewing the issue of children and vulnerable witnesses giving evidence in family proceedings.
I don’t want to go through the details of the two reports – I’m sure others will do that better than I could – but rather consider the whole issue of change generally. This is something I have considered here previously in this post, in which I mentioned that the current period of seemingly continuous change is unique in my experience, my twenty-five year career as a family lawyer having been marked by long periods when calls for change fell on deaf ears and the system seemed to stagnate.
As I also said in that post, I am generally an optimist when it comes to change, although some of the recent changes don’t seem to merit much optimism. But, as a generalisation, continuous change gives me some cause for concern. Firstly, changes are not always given enough time to be properly evaluated before they are changed again (the report of the FRWG suggests that at least one recent change be reconsidered). Secondly, continuous change adds to the already heavy burden of work endured by those who work in the family justice system, without necessarily making their jobs any easier – additional rules, practice directions and guidelines to follow can have the opposite effect.
I suppose the question to ask is: is there a particular need for change at this time or, to put it another way, what is so special about now that so much change is required?
Well, I guess the first thing to note is the stagnation I mentioned earlier – if there hasn’t been sufficient change in the system previously in response to general changes in society, then clearly the system has to ‘catch up’.
There is, however, one major issue that makes this time special: the abolition of legal aid and the consequent increase in litigants in person. Clearly, that is a huge matter that needs urgent attention. Sure enough, a large part of the report of the FRWG is devoted to it, and quite rightly so.
Of course, litigants in person do not need to be especially concerned with changes in the system, unlike those who work in it, as most of them just experience it at a particular moment in time.
So… do we really have a pressing need for more change at this time? I’m not sure. I’m not saying for one moment that we shouldn’t be continuously looking for ways to improve the system, just that care should be taken to avoid the sort of situation found in other professions (teaching comes to mind) whereby, rather than addressing problems, change itself becomes the problem.