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President of Family Division hits out at non-compliance with court timetables

The President of the Family Division has fired another warning to parties in cases in the Family Court that they are not permitted to amend a timetable fixed by the court without the prior approval of the court.

In W (Children), Re [2014] EWFC 22, Sir James Munby said: “I emphasise the obligation on every party, spelt out in the standard form of case management order, to inform the court ‘immediately’ in the event of any non-compliance.

“That obligation is imposed for good reason, though too often, as in the present case, it also is not complied with.”

The President’s comments arose when he was giving judgment in a case involving Bristol City Council, four children, their mother, three different fathers and a family member who offered herself as carer for some of the children.

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Bristol had been told by HHJ Rutherford to file a care plan by a set date and the respondents to file their final evidence a fortnight later, and the guardian a fortnight after that, 10 days prior to a final hearing.

“In breach of Judge Rutherford's order, Bristol City Council failed to file and serve its final evidence and care plan” until more than two weeks after the ordered time, Sir James noted.

This threw out the whole planned timetable of the case leaving the guardian with little time to prepare her material and with papers eventually reaching the court only the day before the scheduled hearing.

The President required Bristol to explain what had happened, and was told that a proposal for a family meeting had arisen and “the late filing was a combination of agreement between the parties to accommodate the family meeting and then sick leave on the part of the lawyer and pressure of work on the part of the social worker”.

In an e-mail, an unnamed Bristol legal officer added: “Unfortunately, as far as I can see from our records, we completely failed to inform the court, and to seek the court's approval, of the agreement made at and following the advocates meeting…I apologise unreservedly for these failures”.

Sir James said: “I do not propose to take up time examining the extent to which this accords with other parties' perceptions. Assuming that there was such an agreement, it is beside the point. I protest in the most emphatic terms against the seeming assumption that the parties can, without reference to the court, agree an alteration in a timetable set by the Family Court. They cannot and they must not.”

The Family President pointed out that there was no provision – “and for good reason” – in the Family Procedure Rules equivalent to the recently added paragraph (4) of Civil Procedure Rule 3.8.

Sir James added: “In accordance with and deriving from the court's powers under FPR 12.24, the standard form of case management order, use of which is mandatory, spells out (as did Judge Rutherford's order in this case) the consequence of failure to comply, namely the obligation on every party to ‘immediately inform the Court if any party or person fails to comply with any part of this order.’”

Mark Smulian

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