I don’t know exactly where the President of the Family Division’s chambers are located, but it must be a lofty perch. From it, the President evidently has a clear view of all he (or she) surveys. Accordingly, it has become a tradition that they should provide us lesser mortals with a picture of all that is wrong with the family justice system (and a pathway to how we should put it right), and our new President Sir Andrew McFarlane is continuing that tradition.
Unfortunately, our new President’s first View from his perch was published on a site behind a paywall, at least until that fact was pointed out (it now also appears on the Courts and Tribunals Judiciary website). Hopefully, this was just an oversight from a man new to the system, and all future Views will be free to, err… view.
So, what does the View contain?
Well, actually not a lot that is new. Much of what he wrote about refers to the ‘workload challenge’ faced by the family justice system as a result of the increase in children cases over the last few years, a topic that Sir Andrew already dealt with in more detail (as he says in the View) in his speech to the Association of Lawyers for Children Conference 2018 back in November, that I commented upon here in this post.
In a nutshell Sir Andrew is fearful that the stress of the workload, “in a system which is already sparely manned in terms of lawyers, court staff and judges”, will “risk the burn‐out of key and valued individuals”. His solution to this, or at least part of his solution, is to allow some corners to be cut, and some time limits to be exceeded.
Think of that for a moment. I find it quite remarkable that the man at the very top of the family justice system is advocating the cutting of corners. Surely, such a situation would have been unthinkable only a few short years ago? I’m not saying that Sir Andrew is wrong to make such a suggestion, just that the fact that he has is an indication of just what a state the system has found itself in. That state, of course, is not just due to the increase in children cases. It is also a result of years of under-funding by the government, and of the swinging legal aid cuts, that have (as was entirely foreseeable) burdened the system with a mass of litigants in person, who require extra judicial resources to deal with.
Of course, Sir Andrew is not talking of corner-cutting that will cause unsound outcomes, or that will adversely affect the welfare of children caught up in the family justice system. He makes a few suggestions of the sort of thing he has in mind, including setting the earliest and latest times that courts are expected to sit (how does this fit with the extended court hours pilot announced by HM Courts & Tribunals Service and the Ministry of Justice last November?); agreeing the latest time in the evening, and the earliest time in the morning, when it is acceptable to send an email to another lawyer in a case or to the court; and reducing the components to be expected in a ‘Position Statement’ to the minimum required, for example simply one side of A4, using bullet points. Quite what effect these things will have upon the workload of those involved in the family justice system, we will have to wait and see.
Otherwise, the View has little else to say. Sir Andrew does mention a couple of other news items of which we are already aware, such as the expansion of the Financial Remedies Court pilot, which he says is working well, and which he is confident “will be a successful and popular development”, and also the guidance he issued in December regarding the anonymisation of family law judgments involving children, that he hopes will be applied by all Family Courts.
And that, really, was about it. Not that I’m complaining. Indeed, it is refreshing to have a President who is (for the moment at least) a little less proactive. Busy family law professionals have enough to do to keep up with new developments as it is – perhaps Sir Andrew is purposely giving them less to think about, in order to reduce the risk of burn-out!
The full text of the View can be found here.