On Friday 19th October Support Through Court hosted a breakfast discussion on the Future of the Family Division.
After a warm welcome and word of thanks from Support Through Court CEO, Eileen Pereira, to everyone in the audience and to the sponsors of the event for their support, the morning began with a key note speech from Sir James Munby, the former President of the Family division and Sir Andrew McFarlane, the current President. Sir Andrew termed their double act “Mac and Munby”.
The duo referred to key areas relating to where the Family Division is going:
First, Sir Andrew raised the need for us all to concentrate on the wellbeing of those working in family law. The volume of care cases has gone up by 25%, private applications have also gone up. We have the same number of judges and lawyers dealing with many more cases. The 26 week deadline that used to be met is now ambitious. As highlighted recently in an article by Ian Griffin, Barrister at 4 Brick Court, we need to ask what this doing to our wellbeing.
Sir Andrew passionately stated that it is time to stop trying to be macho and admit wellbeing is important. Together, he said, we need to consider how can we reduce the pressure of work, the stress. He encouraged that we talk to each other, that we raise if we are working every weekend. He said it simply cannot be sustained. We need to make the job more tenable.
The reform program, the second key area of discussion, is moving through the courts and Sir Andrew predicts that physically and administratively things will be very different in 2-3 year's time. Many elements of the reforms should help those working in family law. For example, having paperless courts, meaning no more huge bundles to be transported around, will be a real advantage to wellbeing. Everyone will have everything to hand and will be able to access materials from everywhere. The stress of getting documents out will be reduced. The current situation for everyone is not sustainable and therefore it is impossible not to improve.
Sir Andrew then moved on to mention online court applications. Divorce applications were the first to be put online. Sir Andrew had the room all laughing when he told us he actually got quite far into divorcing his wife when he went online just to try it out! He encouraged everyone to go online and take a look. He was pleased that it was intuitive. The statistics are great too. With paper divorce petitions over 40% are sent back due to errors. By contrast, with the online process only 0.5% are kicked back. He said that the system will develop step by step over the next 18 months. Everything will feed into a portal for the judges, with all the issues, facts and figures populated.
The third element of the reforms is the virtual court. Applicable cases could and will take place over a Skype type system. Sir Andrew did raise that most cases though will still need the people in the room, in particular to solve cases over children and money. Apart from standard directions hearings he thinks most other cases will still need to be held in person.
Sir Andrew finished by saying that these reforms were not optional. They are happening now. Money is being taken out of the system to centralize the process.
Sir James then continued the discussion by going back to the important point about the wellbeing of everyone working in family law. He said that people weren’t just going the extra mile, they were going and extra two or three miles on a daily basis. Case loads are increasing whilst resourcing stays static. He stated that there was no real scope in sight to increase the number of salaried judges. The only real hope he stressed is what we will get from the reforms. This will be the biggest change anyone will see in the justice system in their lifetime. He stressed that the reform programme is going to be astonishing and was frank enough to say that f we don't reform we are going to fall over the abyss.
Sir James also reiterated that we should not let the Bury St Edmunds debacle taint everyone’s thoughts on whether the reforms will work. The tech works, he said and we should move into the brave new world. The transformation is being led by Professor Richard Susskind.
On virtual hearings, Sir James agreed with Sir Andrew that we need to be very clear on the types of hearings that will be suitable.
We do, he said, need to be adventurous though about what is a ‘court’. In his opinion they do not need to be big fancy buildings which are not affordable or accessible. We need to have hearings in other types of buildings and this conversation has barely started.
Sir James concluded by this section by stating that reform is unavoidable and that we all need to be positive about the changes.
Both Sir James and Sir Andrew then moved on to the theme of Financial Remedies work. There is a pilot scheme taking place in the Midlands. The problem is that it is currently a lottery as to whether the judge has experience in these matters The pilot is a ticketing process and the point is to ensure that cases heard by experienced judges who want to do this kind of work.
Sir Andrew mentioned that he endorsed private FDRs. Sir James stated that parties should be able to choose the right point for an FDR and as these are private disputes parties should be able to resolve them privately. Properly run, these can be very effective.
Next, Sir James raised the issue of the care crisis and the review. Cases went up and have now levelled off. It is a head scratcher as to why. Local authorities have less resources so possibly less cases are coming through. We are also seeing a trend that more children are being sent home after care proceedings. There is a care crisis review. We need help up and down the country to understand the problems. Sir James referred to the research undertaken at the University of Lancaster that is gathering statistics. This is the first time prop statistical analysis using funnel graphs, with time and numbers plotted. is taking place.
Peter Crisp, Chair of Support Through Court concluded the morning by thanking everyone for attending and making a call to law firms to join Support Through Court partnership programme as regular support is critical.
The 2.5 hours set aside for the breakfast discussion flew by and it was an interesting and engaging morning for all.
Catherine Bamford, Support Through Court Volunteer, Fundraising Board Member and CEO of Bam Legal