Is constant tinkering harming the family justice system?

Family Law|May 28th 2019

In another life I monitor and report family justice news, from a whole variety of sources. I have been doing so for more than ten years now. During that time I have seen many changes in the system (as I briefly outlined in this recent post), and many more calls for change.

In fact, sometimes it seems as if hardly a day passes by without the announcement or call for some new inquiry, review, initiative, or campaign for change, whether it be from government, MPs, the President of the Family Division, or some other interested party. In just the last couple of weeks, for example, we have had MPs calling for an inquiry into the ‘secret family courts’, the Ministry of Justice announcing a review into how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse, an announcement by the President of a ‘Transparency Review’, and the parent support Community Interest Company OnlyMums & OnlyDads launching a campaign to speed up the court process for dealing with child arrangements applications.

Now I don’t for one moment say that the system is perfect so can’t be improved, and I accept that most of the calls for change are perfectly well-meaning, but are they actually creating a problem? What is the effect upon the system of constant change, and constant calls for yet more change? As I think I’ve said here previously, we seem nowadays to be in a culture of ‘change for change’s sake’, as if any change must be for the better. That of course is not the case. But even if it were, we must still consider the effect of change itself upon the system, and those who work within it.

Think, for example, of the practical effect upon judges, magistrates, court staff, Cafcass officers, social workers and lawyers. They are constantly having to re-train in new procedures and working practices. Now, some of that of course goes with the job: they all have to keep up to date with new law and procedure, and always have had to. However, the rate of change these days is far greater than ever before. And we are not necessarily talking about small changes. Many of the changes are fundamental to the way that people work, for example centralising courts, transferring to online systems, and major overhauls of law and procedure. Just ‘keeping up’ is becoming a full-time job in itself.

And change seems to almost inevitably mean higher workload, adding to pressures on those working within the system, and discouraging others from doing the job. We have witnessed something similar in the education system, which has been subject to constant tinkering for many years, and now both struggles to attract new teachers and has a very high turnover, with many teachers leaving the profession early. I think we may already be finding it more difficult to attract the people we want, and the numbers we want, into the family justice system.

Another reason for the work being unattractive is that those calling for change are, either directly or indirectly, saying that things are wrong within the system, and that those working within it are not doing a good job. Constantly effectively being told that you are doing a bad job, when for the most part you are actually doing a very good job, must have an effect upon moral.

And my final point is a more general one. Constant change and calls for change lead to ineffectiveness and uncertainty.

Surely, any changes need to be given a chance to ‘bed in’ and work? The people affected by them, both those who work in the system and those who use it, should be able to become familiar with them. This process could actually take many years, decades even. Only then is the system working at ‘peak efficiency’. And yet change takes place on a much shorter timescale. We have seen this particularly in the field of children law, with significant changes to law and procedure occurring on a regular basis, and calls for change happening constantly.

I think many people view the family justice system as something that can always be improved, that can always be hewn into something better. On a broad scale, I would agree. But that does not necessarily mean that change should be happening all the time.

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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Comment(1)

  1. spinner says:

    I was trying to think of an appropriate analogy so as maybe you could better understand your situation.

    You are a vehicle mechanic from the 1980’s moaning about the fancy new microcontroller based engine management systems and how the old systems were fine and you need more time to retrain.

    Where you need to be and where commercial dispute resolution systems are today are working on full self driving electric Tesla’s.

    That is literally how backward I see you current system as and over the next 5-10 years you are going to see massive change, much more than just being able to submit a form online.

    The trigger for me to know that some people associated with your system are serious and know what they are doing was when you mentioned that you were being told to create a “database” of inputs and outputs from your system, once that training set has data from a couple of years it will really be very good and only improve.

    So if you don’t like change and have some expectation that the “radical” change of being able to fill out a form online should somehow stay in place for a few years, maybe you should start thinking of looking for some other domain to work in.

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