Sir James Munby, flexible court hours and increased court workload: The last week in family law

Sir James Munby, the former President of the Family Division, has been appointed Chair of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Observatory is being established by the Nuffield Foundation “to support the best possible decisions for children by improving the use of data and research evidence in the family justice system.” Sir James will oversee the Observatory’s development. His first priority as Chair will be to lead an open recruitment process for members of a new governing board to support the creation and development of the organisation. Tim Gardam, Chief Executive of the Nuffield Foundation said: “We are delighted that Sir James has agreed to Chair the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. As President of the Family Division, Sir James has long been an advocate for making better use of available research evidence, and of addressing the gaps in evidence where research would be invaluable in informing decision-making.” Sir James said: “I am pleased to have been appointed Chair of the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, which is one of the most innovative, exciting and important developments for the family justice system in recent years. The Nuffield Foundation’s commitment of funding on a particularly generous scale will enable the Observatory to ‘get off the ground’ and to become, as I am sure it will, an established and vital part of the wider family justice system.”

The government has announced that early and late sittings
will be piloted in civil and family courts, “giving people greater access to
hearings that can fit around their busy lives.” Two courts in Manchester and
Brentford will run the pilots for six months, testing whether civil and family
buildings can be used more effectively; the benefits of making it possible for
people to attend court outside of the traditional 10am – 4pm sitting day; and
what more flexibility means for staff and legal professionals. Justice
Minister, Lucy Frazer said: “We want to make our courts and tribunals more
accessible to the public. This pilot assesses whether and how we can give
people greater flexibility in their busy lives. We listened carefully to the
views of legal professionals and others before going ahead, and as a result
flexible operating hours are not being piloted in criminal courts. We will now
test different options relating to operating hours in two civil and family
courts and an independent evaluation will be carried out before any decisions
are made about further roll-out.” The pilots are expected to begin in spring
next year.

The latest figures for care applications and private law
demand, for October 2018, have been published by the Children and Family Court
Advisory and Support Service (‘Cafcass’), the organisation that looks after the
interests of children involved in family proceedings. In that month the service
received a total of 1,246 new care applications. This figure is 3.8% higher
than October 2017. The total number of new public law cases during the current
year (i.e. since April 2018) is running at just over 2% lower than last year. As
to private law demand, Cafcass received a total of 4,080 new private law cases.
This is 6.7% higher than October 2017. The total number of new private law cases
during the current year (i.e. since April 2018) is running at just over 2%
higher than last year.

And finally, on the same topic, the Lord Chief Justice has
highlighted the effect on family court workload, and resulting backlogs, of the
increased volume of both public and private law cases. In his first annual
report Lord Burnett of Maldon said that to address the high demand in public
law cases a higher number of family sitting days were allocated, but despite
judges taking on increased workloads, there are still too few judges to absorb
all of the increases in case volumes seen since 2015. As to private law cases,
the report says: “Again, lack of judicial resources meant that only 42,550
cases were disposed of, meaning that the outstanding caseload has continued to
grow. This backlog is contributing to extended waiting times, with private law
cases taking 26 weeks from being issued to final order, three weeks longer than
the equivalent period in 2017.”