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Lord Thomas discusses family justice with House of Commons Justice Committee

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As readers may be aware, the current Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, is due to retire on 1 October. However, before leaving he has had a thing or two to say about the family justice system.

A couple of weeks ago Lord Thomas laid his final annual report before Parliament. In it he reviewed developments in family justice over the year, mentioning in particular the crisis caused by the sustained increase in public law cases.

Lord Thomas subsequently expanded upon that, and other matters, in an evidence session before the House of Commons’ Justice Select Committee, on 14 September. Some interesting points were raised, in particular in relation to three issues.

The first issue was that one about the increased workload of the family courts, and how it might be dealt with. Lord Thomas said that the Cabinet Office is looking into the reasons behind the rise, but its findings had not yet been made public. It will be interesting to see those findings, although it is not difficult to hazard a guess what they will include. He said that the number of court days devoted to family work is increasing all the time, and that the demands of family work are having an impact upon other areas of civil justice, as more judicial resources have to be devoted to family work.

As has been widely reported, Lord Thomas told the Committee that one of the things he does, although it makes him uneasy, is to authorise judges to be brought out of retirement to deal with the high work load of the courts. However, interestingly this does not mean using retired family judges, but rather using retired civil judges to do civil work, freeing up other, non-retired, judges to do family work. I wonder if there is any reason for not using retired judges to do the family work.

The second issue related to the increased numbers of litigants in person now using the family courts. As Lord Thomas quite rightly said, forcing parties to family disputes to confront each other in court without lawyers can often make matters between them even worse. He also made the point that mediation is more likely to be successful with lawyers, as the lawyers are likely to recommend that the parties accept what the mediator suggests, as that is what the court is likely to order anyway.

Most interestingly, Lord Thomas said that there were three possible solutions to the problem of litigants in person. The first would obviously be to go back to the old legal aid system. Another solution would be to do what has been done in California, which is to provide the parties with an employed lawyer in court who can advise. Thirdly he said, admitting that this may be more difficult, organisations such as Citizens Advice could be used to advise the parties. He said that the judiciary was adapting to the problem, but that there was a limit to what the judiciary can do to solve the problem without more work coming back, which is obviously not what is wanted.

The idea of an employed lawyer at court, rather like a criminal duty solicitor, is an enticing one, but there are at least two obvious problems. The first is that the government would have to pay, and I can’t see that happening. The second problem is that there is only a limited amount of help that a lawyer at court can do without being able to prepare the case beforehand. Still, I suppose it would still be better than no lawyer at all, and I’m sure many litigants in person would be only too happy to have some legal help at court.

The third issue is one that is close to my heart – security in the courts. I recall writing about this on my own blog many years ago. Lord Thomas said this was a particular problem with family matters, where emotions are running high, with some of the most serious security incidents occurring in family cases. Court staff had been attacked, and there was at least one case where the judge had had “really serious problems”. HM Courts and Tribunals Service was taking steps to improve security, and had found that there were “serious deficiencies” in security, that are affecting litigants and judges. Lord Thomas said that the police now understand the problem – my own view has always been that there should be police or other security officers present in family courts at all times. I realise that this has cost implications, but surely the safety of those who work in and use the family courts is more important than money?

As I write this a transcript of the Justice Committee evidence session with Lord Thomas is not yet available, but you can watch a video of the session here.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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  1. Paul says:

    Interesting. No acknowledgement of any of the failing percieved by people using the system.
    Security problems. So stitching men up and seperating them from their kids is proving to be dangerous work. Hardly surprising.
    Good !!! – you have G4S guards on site. What more could you want?
    If people were heard and treated fairly then there would be no security problem.
    My message to the courts. Your causing the problem. Why should taxpayers pick up the bill? You know what you are doing and know its wrong, deal with it !!

    • S says:

      I agree with Paul. Some of the judges are extremely dangerous to the public, innocent people and children. I have been going to a court for the past 5 years and I am LIP (Litigant in person). If you are LIP and if your opponent has a barrister and if that barrister is a liar then there is no chance of presenting your case to certain judges. No one will listens to you. Whatever you say will be falling on deaf ears. Some judges don’t even read the cases they just believe what the barristers say and then seal the orders without checking them with lots of errors on orders. If you point out their errors then they will use the law as the tool to torture you mentally. Some judges are not prepared to listen to you at all: you write to them before the hearings with justifications but its all waste of time. Sometimes I ask myself which country am I in? they are behaving like a third world country; the judges, barristers and solicitors should be there to protect the innocent people and children but it doesn’t work that way does it.

      In my recent experience some good honest barristers and solicitors when they come to know their client is lying they stop representing them (even though they are duty-bound) but some nasty barristers they don’t care about the truth, they lie and mislead the judges by creating suspicions and divert them (because they are duty bound to their client their education is wasted to help the criminals). This is not just the barrister’s fault it is the judges duty to judge who is telling the truth but it doesn’t work that way in family courts. They are not prepared to waste their time going through the evidences submitted to them; they are only prepared to listen to hearsay from barristers and this is very dangerous if you are LIP.

      They all want easy lives because they are humans after all and it is easier for them to believe the barristers and the solicitors than spending their time judging who is telling the truth. Nobody wants to help the innocent people unless they are affected in their own lives. It’s all about money these days.

      Some really good caring helpful judges are out there however their reputation is affected by some very bad selfish judges and young inexperience barristers. If you are not a strong person they will mislead you, force you, harass you to agree to decisions that you will regret it later in life. I have been suffering from legal abuse syndrome because of this legal system; it is shocking.
      Some judges and barristers are playing with hard working people’s life and making them to become homeless not realising by doing this the tax payers are picking up their bills.

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