Call to cut family justice delays


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The Independent Online

The family justice system needs to be modernised to cut the "unacceptably long delays" in cases, the Lord Chief Justice said today.

Introducing a report by Mr Justice Ryder, Lord Judge stressed that children were suffering from the effects of cases taking too long to go through court.

Lord Judge, speaking at the Royal Courts of Justice, said changes were necessary following the huge rise in the number of care cases going through courts after the death of Baby P, later named as Peter Connelly, came to light in November 2008.

He said: "This notorious and tragic case led to a very substantial increase in the number of applications by local authorities for children to be removed from one or both parents and taken into care.

"In 2008, just under 20,000 children were involved in these cases. In 2011, the figure is just under 30,000.

"These are, as you can imagine, very sensitive, difficult and anxious cases, and the decisions made in them will often change the course of the life of a child or children."

Removing a child from one or both parents is "a power only to be exercised where necessary" he stressed, with the decisions involved "exceptionally burdensome" and requiring "the utmost care".

Lord Judge added: "The huge pressure on the family justice system led to unacceptably long delays. For a child, any delay represents a substantial proportion of its life.

"It is not acceptable. The increased work highlighted the need to overhaul and modernise the way family justice operates."

Mr Justice Ryder said delays had "increased steadily" since the implementation of the Children Act 1989, at which time it was estimated that a case could be completed within 12 weeks, although that target may never have been realised, he added.

The average time for public law cases, including those involving the care of children, reached an average of 57 weeks - 60 in county courts - by the spring of 2011.

The average from January to March 2012 was 54 weeks - still a little over a year. Provisional figures from April to June this year show the length of time a public law case takes is now 51 weeks.

The Government wants most public law cases to have a 26-week time limit which, Mr Justice Ryder said, means there has to be "a new style of management for family cases".

He added: "That must be based on what works for the child: timetables that rely on evidence-based good practice.

"Our aim is to improve outcomes for children by providing them with the timely justice they need and deserve."

Mr Justice Ryder emphasised that the quality of work would not diminish with the focus now on the reduction of delays, however.

He said: "Effective case management, which is the identification of the issue in the case and getting the evidence that's necessary for those issues to be decided, must not mean cutting corners.

"What it means is making decisions about what those issues are and what evidence you need at the beginning, or as near as possible to the beginning."

He added: "That is time well spent in the interests of the child."

In the proposals, a key factor highlighted is the use of expert witnesses, with Mr Justice Ryder saying they can cause delays and are "misused and overused".

He said these experts were primarily social workers and psychologists called in to comment on a case - but added that often, the information they imparted was already before the court.

Also among the raft of reforms, accepted by the Lord Chief Justice, is the call for a single family court. Family Court Centres will see judges and magistrates sitting in the same building, and will comprise of one or more hub courts and their associated hearing venues.

Judges' roles will change in family cases so that they are involved in "active case management", the Lord Chief Justice said.

He added: "The traditional model of the judge as a passive arbiter, holding the ring between the protagonists, allowing the parties to adduce whatever evidence they wish, and however relevant it may be to the ultimate outcome of the case or not, will change."

The report, Judicial Proposals for the Modernisation of Family Justice, was written as a response to the Family Justice Review, written by David Norgrove.

Changes will be made in two phases, the first by the end of 2013, putting in place structures and "leadership and management principles". The second phase, from 2013-2014, will include judicial training and prepare for the implementation of the Children and Families Bill.

Mr Justice Ryder consulted more than 5,000 interested parties, including judges, lawyers and social workers, around the UK over the past eight months.

He said: "I have not known such a strong consensus for change in my time on the bench or at the bar.

"There is a clear recognition that a change of culture is required to root out unnecessary delay while maintaining the quality of decisions we make.

"We have an obligation to provide better access to justice for children."

The Family Justice Review is the "biggest change to the family justice system" since the 1989 Children Act, he added, and called for a more cohesive attitude between those working in family justice and a change of mindset.

"The vehicle for achieving this fundamental change in culture in the courts is the creation of the single Family Court," said Mr Justice Ryder. "The Family Court represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the way judges, magistrates and legal advisers work.

"For the first time we will all be working together in one court where there can be consistent application of rules and evidence-based good practice."

He also called for "effective sanctions", which would include fixed cost orders for non-compliance in rare cases, as "too many case management orders are not complied with".

Mr Justice Ryder said these cost orders could be made on justice agencies but that he did not envisage parents of the children involved being affected, apart from in "the most rare circumstance".

The report also points out that most private law cases, involving parents who are trying to resolve their differences about plans for their children, will fall outside the scope of public funding from April 2013.

Family courts will, from that point, have to deal with parents who previously had legal representation. Mr Justice Ryder said that procedure would be adapted to deal with those who are not legally represented.

The Lord Chief Justice stressed that "the law is not complicated", however, and that in all cases, the interests of the child is "paramount".

The whole objective of the report, he said, is to "improve the quality of justice for children and the parents who are affected by these difficult decisions".