A week in family law: Extended court hours, overloaded courts and legal aid

Family Law|Industry News|November 23rd 2018

HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the Ministry of Justice have announced that early and late sittings are to be be piloted in civil and family courts. They say that such flexible court hours will give the public “greater access to hearings that can fit around their busy lives.” The pilots will take at Brentford County Court and the Manchester Civil Justice Centre. They are expected to begin in spring next year. The pilots will test whether civil and family buildings can be used more effectively, the benefits of making it possible for people to attend court outside of the traditional 10am – 4pm sitting day (hearings in the pilot courts will begin at 8am and end at 7pm), and what more flexibility means for staff and legal professionals.

Justice Minister, Lucy Frazer commented:

“We want to make our courts and tribunals more accessible to the public. This pilot assesses whether and how we can give people greater flexibility in their busy lives. We listened carefully to the views of legal professionals and others before going ahead … We will now test different options relating to operating hours in two civil and family courts and an independent evaluation will be carried out before any decisions are made about further roll-out.”

I can hear the cries of approval from judges and lawyers alike…

And now two linked stories:

Firstly, the latest figures for care applications and private law demand, for October 2018, have been published by Cafcass’. In that month the service received a total of 1,246 new care applications. This figure is 3.8% higher than October 2017. The total number of new public law cases during the current year (i.e. since April 2018) is running at just over 2% lower than last year. As to private law demand, Cafcass received a total of 4,080 new private law cases. This is 6.7% higher than October 2017. The total number of new private law cases during the current year (i.e. since April 2018) is running at just over 2% higher than last year.

Secondly, as I reported here on Wednesday, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett of Maldon has unsurprisingly highlighted the effect on family court workload, and resulting backlogs, of the increased volume of both public and private law cases. In his first annual report he said that to address the high demand in public law cases a higher number of family sitting days were allocated, but there are still too few judges to absorb all of the increases in case volumes seen since 2015, despite judges taking on increased workloads. With regard to private law cases, the report says that again lack of judicial resources meant that only not all cases were disposed of, with the result that the outstanding caseload has continued to grow.

This backlog, says the report,

“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.”

Not a happy picture.

And finally, it is also not a happy picture for those litigants who, in theory at least, should still have the benefit of legal aid, in particular victims of domestic violence. It has been reported that the latest in a long line of problems with the Legal Aid Agency’s online computer system Client and Cost Management System (‘CCMS’) have become so bad that some litigants are having to represent themselves at hearings because the necessary paperwork cannot be processed in time.

Richard Miller, the Law Society’s head of justice, said CCMS has been beset with problems from the outset:

“System outages mean legal aid solicitors are unable to submit legal aid applications for their clients, some of which require work to be done urgently. A system which too often makes it difficult or impossible for solicitors to undertake essential work for their clients is clearly not fit for purpose.”

Quite.

Have a good weekend.

Author: John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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