The judge in charge of the modernisation of family justice has called for “strong judicial leadership and management” when the new single family court is set up next year.
Mr Justice Ryder’s recommendations on how David Norgrove’s family justice review can be put into action by the judiciary include a need for “robust case management” to keep cases to timetable and prevent delay.
Ryder J said the withdrawal of legal aid from private family law in April – which is widely expected to increase the number of litigants in person in the family courts – will present an “immediate challenge” for judges. These litigants will not have had much legal advice, and will often have scant understanding of what the court process entails.
The court will be “faced with very real evidential issues”, he said, citing the examples of interpretation facilities, capacity, safeguarding and expert advice, while the parties may not be able to afford DNA tests for parentage or hair strand tests for drug and alcohol abstinence. Consequently, the judiciary will need to “develop effective methods” of assisting litigants in person “while maintaining fairness to all parties”.
Ryder J’s recommendations have been endorsed by the Lord Chief Justice. A 26-week statutory time limit for child care cases is due to be implemented in 2014. A single family court will be created. Straightforward routes for action, or “pathways”, will be set out for both private and public family cases to simplify procedures and speed cases up.
A new Family Justice Board (FJB) to oversee the changes will be headed by David Norgrove. The Ministry of Justice said the FJB would focus on “reducing delay across the system, helping it prepare for the introduction of the statutory six-month time limit in care cases. The board will also work to build cross agency coherence, tackle variations in local performance, and ensure more private law cases are resolved out of court, where appropriate”.