On the 14th of November the Lord Chief Justice, The Right Honourable The Lord Burnett of Maldon, laid his 2018 annual report, his first, before Parliament. The report of course covers the entire justice system, but I thought I would pick out a few things in it that may be of interest to those concerned with family justice. It doesn’t make entirely happy reading.
One of the biggest concerns for court users these days is the dilapidated state of court buildings. I have heard various stories and seen a number of pictures on Twitter and elsewhere that are frankly shocking. Lavatories that don’t work, lifts that don’t work, roofs that leak when it rains, broken furniture, and so on. Court users should not have to put up with such things, and those who have to work in the courts really shouldn’t be expected to work in such conditions. And it doesn’t seem that things are going to improve much anytime soon. In his introduction to the report Lord Burnett of Maldon informs us that last year, all of the money allocated to maintenance was spent, in contrast with relatively recent practice, and additional funding of almost £7 million was made available by the Ministry of Justice. However, he says: “the reality is that the backlog of urgent maintenance needed to ensure that all our buildings are in a decent condition will only be reduced by the injection of substantial funds.” Don’t expect the present government to come up with those funds.
Lord Burnett also speaks in his introduction of the work done towards promoting the role of judges to the public, in an effort to counter “outdated media stereotypes which ignore the work done by thousands of salaried and fee-paid judges.” Interestingly, he specifically mentioned the film ‘The Children Act’, which he said “accurately highlighted some aspects of the work done in the Family Courts.”
Moving on, the first section of the report deals with the courts modernisation programme. Most of what is contained there is not new to me, but I’m not sure if I’ve heard previously about Courts & Tribunals Service Centres (‘CTSCs’), which the report says are a “key element” of the programme. We are told that:
“CTSCs will deliver administrative services, supporting local courts and tribunals where the majority of HMCTS staff will still work. The first two CTSCs, located in Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham, are expected to open in January 2019. Civil Money Claims, Divorce, Social Security and Child Support and Probate will be the first services administered from CTSCs.”
For a little more information as to how it is hoped CTSCs will improve the service for court users, see this Ministry of Justice/HM Courts and Tribunals Service press release from last year.
I will now skip forward to section 6 of the report, which deals specifically with family justice. It makes pretty depressing reading. The report sets out the continued rise in both public law and private law children cases. As to the former, it says:
“To address the high demand in public law cases, a higher number of family sitting days were allocated. However, despite judges taking on increased workloads, there are still too few judges to absorb all of the increases in case volumes seen since 2015.”
This, in turn, is leading to “increased backlogs in work, and consequent increases in the time taken to dispose of cases”, with care cases taking more than 30 weeks to deal with in the second quarter of 2018, the longest they have been since the introduction of public law reforms and the single family court in April 2014.
And it is a similar story for private law cases. The report says:
“Again, lack of judicial resources meant that only 42,550 cases were disposed of, meaning that the outstanding caseload has continued to grow. This backlog is contributing to extended waiting times, with private law cases taking 26 weeks from being issued to final order, three weeks longer than the equivalent period in 2017.”
Interestingly, the report says, almost in passing, that: “There is a perception that too many private law cases are coming to court, which would be better dealt with outside court.” I suspect that this may be a reference to the fact that fewer cases are going to mediation since the abolition of legal aid, due to the lack of lawyers recommending mediation to their clients.
I will leave this brief review of the report there. If you want to read the whole thing, you can find it on the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary website.