The long awaited report from Mr Justice Ryder was published yesterday – see here.
For me the headline proposal from is the creation of a unified family court. For those of us who studied law in the 1970s, this was the hot essay topic but vanished into the ether. It is long overdue and ade it into in the Crime and Courts bill now before parliament.
Ryder suggests that there are two key elements to making this work: (i) judicial control over the workload and management of the court; and (ii) robust case management through evidence-based good practice. There is also a newly proposed 26 week timetable for care proceedings. The idea is that each family court centre (based around current care centres) will be unified under the leadership of the designated family judge with circuit and district judges sitting in the same building as magistrates .
The High Court would continue to sit in their reserved jurisdictions. High court judges will sit in the family court giving guidance and leadership. To assist local practice and develop national practice there will be local Family Justice Boards. Mr Justice Ryder places strong emphasis on the need for strong judicial leadership and case management from allocation to control of material before the court and issues litigated. Alongside this will be a developing framework of good practice aimed at amongst other matters the instruction of experts.
So far so good. Nobody involved in the current system can really carp at the principles but, as with everything, the devil is in the detail. I have a number of immediate concerns. Will the new system be funded to allow family court buildings to be created? This seems unlikely.
If the different parts of the system are not physically together this will cause obvious and immediate problems of management and communication.
The review is heavily weighted towards public law matters and no doubt the unprecedented increase in care proceedings has seen the system creaking at the seams. How will the court prioritise private law children and ancillary relief matters? Are the proposals for robust case management and evidence based good practice, coupled with a 26 week time limit, going to impact upon the quality of justice available to parents in care cases?
Will judges eager not to be named and shamed, make administratively expedient decisions? Will the removal of legal aid from most private law children cases clog up the courts with ‘self representing litigants’ – the new phraseology to hide the impact of legal aid cuts?
Ryder recognises the challenges but I suspect the scale of the problem will only hit home next year. At a time when the system will in many ways become more technical how will ‘self representing litigants’ understand what is required of them in what is such an emotionally-charged setting?
The proposals at least in the public law field, are heavily reliant upon the goodwill and co-operation of hard pressed legal aid lawyers. We are a tired, diminishing, ageing and disillusioned breed, how long can the judiciary expect such goodwill to last?
Ultimately the test of the success of the proposed changes is whether they will improve the quality of justice. Time will tell whether the government has the willingness to invest to ensure that we do not end up with cut price injustice.
Ian is a solicitor advocate with 30 years' experience of the law relating to children and childcare proceedings. He was founder and first chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children. Ian is a part time judge on the Care Standards and Special Education and Disability tribunals.