Family Matters

There is currently much Government debate in respect of changes to family justice and not just about slashing public funding. After Tim Loughton’s speeches on the plight of the 3660 children currently in care homes in England and Wales and their sometimes appalling treatment at homes miles away from their own, children less than a year old are now to be fostered by families who hope to adopt them. The PM has suggested that it should become “standard practice” for babies to be looked after by approved adopters under the Fostering for Adoption Scheme. Michael Gove, himself adopted, is fully supportive but what of the birth families and their Article 8 rights to family life? The scheme it is said will acknowledge that decisions about long term adoption will not be pre-empted, but it is difficult to see how judges will not be swayed by early intervention fostering, when it is known the same foster carers want to adopt permanently. The proper representation of parents in public law cases and the continuation of independent judicial decisions (rather than administrative decisions by local authorities) will be crucial if the children are not to be removed from birth families lightly. WW gives a cautious welcome to the plans, but the devil will as ever be in the detail.

A further family initiative, this time by the Department of Work and Pensions, is set to confirm the Government’s commitment to shared parenting after David Norgrove’s report following the Family Justice Review. An Innovation Fund of £14 million over 2 years is to be set up with the aim of promoting collaborative parenting in separated families. The aim is laudable; to assist parents in collaborating after separation including in respect of child maintenance. However this investment is only likely to scratch the surface come April when a whole swathe of parents will no longer be entitled to public funding in respect of private law disputes, save where there is domestic violence. Some truly imaginative use of the fund will have to be devised if the family courts are not to burst under the weight of unhappy litigants in person.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly for family justice, is the publication of the sixth and probably final report from Mr Justice Ryder, (Knight Ryder if you will...), into the modernisation of family justice. It is fair to say that no feather has been left unruffled by the judge’s strive to find ways to modernise family courts. The key proposals will be the, “creation of a new court which will have strong judicial leadership and management i.e. judicial control of the workload of the court and the management of judicial deployment to match resources to need”. The proposals are being made after a rapid consultation led by the Faster Family Justice Group set up by the judiciary following the Family Justice Review. If implemented, and it seems certain that they will be, the plans will see judges as the managers of the family justice system, using faster “pathways” to concluding cases. The overuse of experts has been highlighted as a factor causing delay. Ryder J’s conclusions would see experts used in far fewer cases and judges taking a greater inquisitorial role in ensuring faster outcomes in family cases. Delay has long been a scourge of family cases; however achieving the fair balance between speed and justice has never been easy. But will the family judges be able to cope with such change, particularly where there is likely to be no extra investment? 

Many of the proposals, however, are not new. The Public Law Outline (another invention of Ryder J’s) came into force as long ago as April 2008 and had the stated aim of judges ensuring that care cases were completed within 26 weeks. It never worked. Despite bold attempts to speed up child care cases, the complexities have increased and 26 weeks has largely been an unattainable goal. And what of IT? Can it seriously be suggested that a unified single family court will be able to operate successfully without a properly funded IT investment? There is of course no money available for computers in this new scheme. Here’s hoping that in the strive for speed and a unified system, Ryder J’s reforms don’t see the baby go out with bathwater.

One Bar

The World Bar Conference was held in London from the 29 June to the 1 July 2012. It was a huge success and a complete sell out thanks to the very hard work of the Members Services team and the careful leadership of past Chairman of the Bar, Stephen Hockman QC. The theme was “Advocacy, past, present and future - constant values for a modern Bar”. Delegates came from far and wide and particularly from the Commonwealth. The importance of a strong independent body of advocates highlighted the problems that had recently been experienced by the Malaysian Bar Association and the Law Society of Zimbabwe, subjected to Government intimidation and interference of a most unacceptable nature. All were unified in the need for strong resilient representation in the face of government intrusion. We often worry about our cases in this jurisdiction; we don’t often think that we will be arrested for conducting them. Brave stories are to be found wherever there is tyranny. Our colleagues in Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Malaysia as ever can rely on our support.  

Our congratulations go out to those members of the Bar who took up their new employment as members of Her Majesty’s judiciary. Invidious it is to name only a few, I know, but particular congratulations to HHJ Daniel Williams (Cardiff), HHJ Nick Hilliard QC (Resident at Woolwich) and HHJ Mark Lucraft QC (Norwich). Both Nick and Mark worked tirelessly for the Bar in recent years and we wish them well.

As holidays are finally upon us WW will avert our gaze from politics for a while and pick up the bucket and spade. Here’s to at least some sunshine along the way.

Charles Hale is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings and a member of the Bar Council
Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council