Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Sixth Report

2  Delays and resource issues

4. The Committee raised with the judiciary the continuing problem of delays in the family courts and the extent to which such delays were due to a lack of adequate resources. Prior to the evidence session, the Law Society wrote to the Committee indicating that, in its view, delays were still a significant problem, particularly in the Principal Registry of the Family Division. Sir Mark Potter informed the Committee that in the light of difficulties in obtaining additional resources, a decision had been taken to "cascade" cases down to the Family Proceedings Courts (FPCs). He said:

    In May 2005 the senior judiciary accepted the recommendation of the Judicial Resources Review that within the new unified administration (now including the magistrates' courts) it is necessary to introduce a strategy of "cascading down" within the system in order to relieve the pressure from the High Court judiciary, whose workload is increasing and whose numbers are capped; and in turn to relieve the workload on the judges of the county court. For this purpose, in my first year I have been focusing on the initial steps to be taken in a three-year strategy to achieve greater flexibility in distributing work between family judges in the county court, district judges and family magistrates in the family proceedings courts (FPCs) where there is undoubtedly spare capacity.[2]

5. He went on to add that:

    In the case of the magistrates, a variety of measures are being instituted to encourage a shift of work to the FPCs. A key requirement in that respect is that those magistrates who wish to do so should be allowed to specialise in family work and to sit for longer periods for the purpose of hearing the more substantial cases, rather than being required, as hitherto, to give much of their time to criminal work. If this strategy is successful - and it will need to be if the delays are to be contained - then consideration of the workings of family justice will need to concentrate upon the work of the FPCs as much as on the High Court and county court […] There is an urgent need for additional legal officers to be available to run the specialist FPCs, which I see as critical to the expansion of their work and a reduction in delays throughout the system.[3]

6. Sir Mark reiterated the difficulties in respect of FPCs a number of times in his evidence, while Audrey Damazer went on to say that:

    [O]ne of our fears is, as the President pointed out, that if there are going to be cuts and we do not increase the number of legal advisers, or not replace the legal advisers we have, then we are not going to be able to take on this work.[4]

7. In response to the concerns expressed by the judiciary, the Chairman of the Committee wrote to the Lord Chancellor, indicating that any reduction in the number of legal advisers would be unacceptable and that every effort should be made to facilitate the "cascading" scheme promoted by the judiciary. The correspondence can be found at the Appendix at page 12.

8. In its report in the last Parliament, the Committee observed that "District Judge Nicholas Crichton is the only full time Family Proceedings Court district judge in England and Wales who is designated to sit 100% on family cases […] The benefit to the parties […] of having a full time district judge holding the case are equally plain to see. There should be recruitment or allocation of far more full time specialist 'family' district judges (magistrates court) to this work."[5]

9. In oral evidence to the Committee, District Judge Crichton informed us that:

    I am still, sadly, the only district judge in the magistrates' courts who sits in family full-time; I would wish very much that that were not the case […] I have been pushing for it for a long time, but I am told it cannot happen. I do not see any good reason why it should not happen. There are also the legal advisers who sit in our court, and particularly at Wells Street where they are specialists. They are all legally qualified, and many of them would make excellent deputies and possibly future appointments; but at the moment we do not seem to be able to get past that obstacle, which I find very disappointing.[6]

10. We are disappointed that it appears that the Department's continuing difficulties with resources seem to be preventing the judiciary from reducing the delays in the family court system. The move towards "cascading down" cases to the Family Proceeding Courts seems a sensible use of existing resources and we trust that the Department will not hinder this scheme by reducing the number of legal advisers provided to the Family Proceedings Courts, or by failing to fill posts that become vacant.

11. We are also surprised that there has been no movement in increasing the number of District Judges (Magistrates Court) sitting full time in the Family Proceedings Courts. This would seem a sensible course, ensuring judicial continuity and specialisation in family cases. We hope the Department will investigate the current obstacles to further such appointments.

2   Q1 Back

3   Q2 Back

4   See Q11 and also the evidence of District Judge Crichton and Audrey Damazer at Qq15-18 Back

5   HC 116-I, para 75 Back

6   Q16, 18 Back

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