Court of Appeal judge to advise on ‘recovery’ phase for Family Court after lockdown

A Court of Appeal judge, Lord Justice Baker, has been invited to advise on the way forward for the ‘recovery’ phase for the Family Court after the lockdown, the President of the Family Division has revealed.

In his latest View from the President’s [Remote] Chambers, Sir Andrew McFarlane said: “Planning for the ‘recovery’ phase that will follow the present lockdown is the most pressing and important matter in my in-tray.

“I strongly suspect that we will look back at the move to remote working as the easy bit, although it does not seem so at present. Whilst politicians have, understandably, spoken of the current endeavour in terms of a war, unlike a war it will not end suddenly on a particular day with a cessation of hostilities.

“Rather, we face a gradual and uncertain emergence from isolation, which will be staged and may play out over many months. Our capacity to hear cases will change and develop over time and is likely to require careful planning and management.”

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Sir Andrew said Lord Justice Baker had assembled a small group – Judd J, HHJ Chris Simmonds, DJ Charles Prest QC, Julia Steels JP, Hannah  Penfold (Lead Legal Adviser) and Recorder Karl Rowley QC – who were currently meeting and taking soundings widely across the system.

Other areas of jurisdiction had established similar groups which were coordinated, across the piece, by Lord Justice Dingemans.

The Family President said: “Getting ‘Recovery’ right is absolutely crucial; we could live with our mistakes for a long time to come.”

Also in his latest View from the President’s Chambers, Sir Andrew said:

  • He welcomed the report carried out by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, which he had commissioned to undertake a rapid consultation on remote hearings in the family justice system.
  • Court staff and district judges, in circumstances where absolutely everyone had worked well beyond capacity, had, he believed, experienced the negative impact of delivering justice during the pandemic the most. He continued to look to ways to relieve the pressure on them.
  • The District Bench, which was already carrying a substantial number of vacancies and having to work at capacity every day before the crisis, had been required to undertake the heavy lifting imposed by remote working. “The much-reported early experience of seamless video hearings in the High Court will not have been replicated for the district judges. The task of undertaking a list with multiple cases, differing, and at times sub-optimal, technology, often over the phone with emotionally charged lay parties, day after day has proved to be much more tiring and difficult even than normal working.” The President said district judges had had a very hard time and he continued to look to ways to relieve the pressure on them.
  • He had been extremely impressed by, “and grateful for”, the way in which the Family judiciary at all levels and the professions have risen to the challenge. “Armed with some knowledge of what is going on in Family courts elsewhere in the world, it seems clear that we have been able to keep the flow of urgent and pressing cases going in a way that has not been replicated elsewhere.”
  • A “most frustrating consequence” of COVID was that the work on implementing the recommendations of the Public Law Working Group Report, which had been prepared, was currently on hold due to the current hiatus.
  • The Transparency Review continued with the final date for the submission of contributions of 11 May. “The process is already providing a deal of material for the group to consider before we hold a day or more of oral ‘hearings’ conducted either remotely or, hopefully, face-to-face.”

The Family President concluded: “In closing I just want to thank all those involved in Family Justice, in whatever capacity, for all that you are doing to keep the Family Court running. These are the most difficult, unusual, taxing and stressful times. We must not lose sight of the need to look after each other and ourselves. Well done for all that you are doing. Let us hope that we may begin the road to ‘Recovery’ pretty soon!”

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