He could never be expected to go quietly. In the last days of Sir James Munby’s Presidency of the Family Division, he treated us to a veritable avalanche of circulars, practice directions and amendments thereof, guidance, protocols and speeches. Not to mention one last judgment.I may look at some of those in future posts, but for the moment I am going to concentrate on some ideas that he threw out in his final press conference last Friday.
I have not seen a full transcript of the press conference, but from the reports I’ve read it seems that it was quite a lively affair, in which Sir James made absolutely clear that whilst his term in office may be coming to an end, that certainly does not mean that he has run out of ideas as to how the family justice system may be improved.
A central theme of the press conference was access to justice. As I pointed out myself on Twitter on Friday, it is sadly the case that, despite his strenuous efforts to improve it during his five year Presidency, the family justice system is arguably considerably worse than it was before he took office, due to legal aid cuts, court closures etc. (the ‘etc.’ referred to other cuts to relevant services generally).
Those legal aid cuts, which took place just a couple of months after Sir James took office, together with numerous court closures over the last five years (I’ve lost count of the number, but seven more were announced just last week) mean that access to justice for many has been seriously eroded over those sixty-odd months.
Clearly aware of this, Sir James commented at the press conference:
“Anyone who thinks we currently have a network of courts which enables proper access to justice is deluding themselves.”
Quite an admission for such a senior judge. He cited the case of a litigant who had to make a 24-mile round trip on foot to a court and indicated that alternatives to appearing in person must be considered. Those who lived in rural areas and had no access to private transport were hardest hit, he said.
One suggestion as to how to deal with this problem, he suggested, was the introduction of mobile courts, rather like the mobile libraries and x-ray units that used to go around the countryside in his (and my) youth.
“Why should we assume axiomatically that all litigants have to go and see a judge?” He asked. “Why should the judge not go and see the litigants?”
A good question, although it is difficult to imagine how a judge is to maintain respect whilst sitting in the back of an HGV. Or perhaps I just don’t possess the sort of vision that Sir James clearly does.
Other suggestions were that courts should sit in pubs, offices, or other conveniently located buildings, rather than in buildings owned by the state.
“Do we need to keep the existing bricks and mortar? Do we need to hire more bricks and mortar?” He asked. If court utilisation is low, the judge could sit in local council offices, he suggested. “The old-fashioned idea we have to have courts on the ground which is owned by the state. We need to be much more flexible, think about using office accommodation, other facilities.”
This is not a new idea, and indeed only recently something like this happened in Chichester, where it has been agreed that family and civil law proceedings will continue at a district council building in the town, following the closure of Chichester County Court.
As for dispensing justice in a pub, I’ll leave that to the reader’s imagination, although the idea of sitting at a bar whilst waiting for your hearing to come on does have its attractions…
Another idea to deal with the issue was litigants speaking to the judge remotely. Ask the public if they want to Skype the judge, he suggested, although he did qualify this with:
“I don’t know what the answer is but we haven’t actually gone out and asked litigants what they actually prefer. I don’t know.” He added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if a significant number of people would be saying actually … I’d rather do it by Skype.” I suspect he might be right, although exactly how this might work in practice (for example dealing with security issues) is not clear.
Finally, moving from the issue of the courts and court closures to the issue of the lack of legal aid, Sir James said that the courts must provide improved assistance to those who could not afford to appoint a lawyer to navigate the complex process. Of the legal aid cuts specifically, he said:
“The consequence is very large numbers of people come to court without representation. Our present court processes, our rules, our forms, our guidance, is woefully inadequate to enable litigants in person – even educated, highly articulate intelligent litigants in person – to understand the system. That’s a shocking reproach to us. That’s a current reality.”
Over to you, Sir Andrew McFarlane…