Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Family Justice Modernisation Programme: The President's Update

Sir James Munby
I thought I should do a post about the President's update on the Family Justice Modernisation Programme, that appeared on the Judiciary of England and Wales website yesterday.

The first thing to note is that the format of the update differs from that of the previous updates issued by Mr Justice Ryder. Gone are the snazzy graphics, to be replaced by a six-paragraph summary and a nine-page PDF entitled View From The President's Chambers. I shall concentrate on the latter.

The View is not literally from the President's Chambers, as Sir James begins by telling us that since becoming President in January he has embarked upon a tour of every care centre in the country. He happily reports that wherever he has gone he has "been immensely cheered by the enthusiasm with which they [i.e. judges, court staff etc.] are all working collaboratively, determined to make a reality of reforms which they have eagerly embraced."

All very nice, but Sir James then sets out his message for the benefit of those who have not yet been graced by his presence, under a number of headings, including:

The reforms
These are divided into three parts: firstly, the creation of the new single Family Court (Sir James emphasises that the Magistracy "will play a vitally important part" in both public and private law work), secondly, the product of the work done for the Family Justice Review and thirdly transparency, of which he says:
"I am determined that the new Family Court should not be saddled, as the family courts are at present, with the charge that we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice. Work, commenced by my predecessor, is well underway. I hope to be in a position to make important announcements in the near future."
The challenge
I.e., the task of improving the system in the face of continued government cuts.

26 weeks
He says that, save for a few exceptional cases, "we can and must meet the 26 week time limit", which "is a deadline, not a target". He says this requires a change of culture in the way cases are managed and points out for the benefit of sceptics (in his conclusion) that the architects of the Children Act thought that care cases should take no longer than 12 weeks.

Experts
He says that three things are needed to get to grips with the 'expert problem': a reduction in the use of experts, a more focussed approach in the cases where experts are still needed and a reduction in the length of expert reports. The new approach will "be robustly enforced by case management judges".

A revised PLO
Sir James concentrates on the first hearing, which is to be given a new name and, no doubt, a new acronym. He sums up his thoughts by repeating what he said to Parliament:
"...the key to this, at the end of the day, is robust judicial case management in cases where at the first hearing, because both the local authority and CAFCASS have delivered, the judge is able to understand what the case is about and timetable the case at that stage right through to the end."
The price of reform?
Sir James makes it clear that he does not accept that either of the two key reforms (the 26 week limit and the new approach to expert evidence) "will prejudice the quality of justice or the interests of those who appear before us".

Finally, Sir James concludes with the Apollo 13 (the film, not reality) quote he gave to the FLBA earlier this year:
"Failure is not an option; I am confident that, with your assistance, we will be successful."

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