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High Court judge blasts lack of judicial resources to meet care proceedings timings

A High Court judge refused to embark on a final hearing in a complex child care case because of lack of time and the absence of any slack in the family court system to allow for an early hearing, it has emerged.

The proceedings concerned a care order in relation to a two-year-old child, who is currently placed with a foster family by the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham.

In The London Borough of Barking & Dagenham v SG & Ors [2014] EWHC 3761 Mr Justice Holman was asked by the council to rule that the child should live with her father, but the mother opposed this.

Describing the situation as “profoundly regrettable” (in a judgment only just published following a hearing in September), the judge said: “It is quite impossible for me to embark on this case this week unless I can finish it this week. There is a considerable number of other matters all listed before me next week, and in the week after, and generally stretching out after that.”

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He added: “All the advocates have, of course, expressed horror at the prospect of a delay of several months until probably February of next year. I wish to say as strongly as I possibly can that I share that horror.

“The difficulty is that Parliament and the government have said that all these cases must be dealt with rapidly and without delay but, unfortunately, have failed to supply the necessary resources, in this instance judicial resources.”

Several family court judges were on circuit or doing other work in the administrative court, one was about to join the Court of Appeal (and the competition to replace them had yet to start), another had unexpected health problems, and “the system is not resourced to provide for any elasticity or slack to cope with these difficulties”, the judge noted.

He refused to make any interim order, as doing so would be effectively pre-emptive of the case and position of the mother.

A further complication, he said, arose from the mother’s decision to change her legal representation. This meant that her barrister Joanna Toch had only met her once, one working day before the start of the hearing.

“Frankly, Miss Toch, who appears today without even her instructing solicitor present, is in no position at all properly to embark on this case on behalf of her client,” the judge said.

Another feature of the case was that both parents had difficulties in communication.

The case, which the judge feared would be delayed until February, was eventually listed for mid-November when another case settled creating an eight-day court slot.

Mark Smulian

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