Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-65)


2 MAY 2006

  Q60  Dr Whitehead: So we understand, as part of the pilot scheme it did indeed permit people to simply evade having anything to do with it by issuing proceedings in neighbouring courts?

  District Judge Crichton: It is not the scheme that permitted them to evade it except for the fact that we could not make it compulsory, but there is freedom as to where you can come into the system. You can come into the system either at family proceedings court level or at county court level so people who would have come into the family proceedings court appear to have started going to the county court.

  Q61  Chairman: I think they had been so advised.

  District Judge Crichton: Presumably, but that is because we had not been able to sell it to the practitioners, which I thought was a fundamental part of what we should have been doing.

  Q62  Dr Whitehead: Is there a benefit in trialling a system rather than piloting a system? I would assume by trialling a system this would be a general trial and not a pilot in one or two areas, to have compulsory preliminary meetings with mediators and perhaps that is it, indeed as envisaged by section 31 of the Family Justice Act which has not been implemented but could be?

  Sir Mark Potter: I would welcome it, but it has resource implications which I think are really a very substantially inhibiting factor so far as governmental support is concerned.

  Q63  Chairman: So does a growing caseload at the higher reaches of the judicial system to deal with these cases?

  Sir Mark Potter: I absolutely agree with you. If one is going to be critical of government thinking broadly in areas associated with family as well as this, there is a terribly blinkered view that money spent in this accounting year, the benefits of which will only be seen in later years and probably by a different minister, is a reason not to put up money now, although likely to save a great deal of money later.

  Q64  Dr Whitehead: Is there any easily correlatable relationship in the way you have suggested; the direct relationship of money saved and money invested? I realise this is a rather unjudicial question.

  Sir Mark Potter: I do not know how it would be costed. I think the best example is what has happened in the last year simply with the early conciliation hearing in private law cases now that it has been largely up and running at county court, principally district judge level, and it has led to early disposal of up to 80% of cases in certain areas. That is a situation where the dispute has been gripped early as soon as it is in the court system. Of course, some cases do not work. Some, where there is violence are not amenable to conciliation and matters of that sort, but it is a quite startling statistic. We are now in the course of having discussions generally, involving CAFCASS in the magistrates' courts as well as in the county courts to move the scheme forward into the magistrates' courts, but that is the principle of the thing. It is not mediation properly so-called but it is an effort to make parties resolve their decisions early as a result of some well-intentioned and skilled person guiding them into that sort of agreement.

  Dr Whitehead: Of the 62 people who did take part in the pilot, was there any correlatable evidence in terms of their outcomes?

  Q65  Chairman: 62 couples or ex-couples perhaps.

  District Judge Crichton: It is difficult to answer that question because I cannot remember the figure—it may have been one-third—pulled out before they had completed. We do not know why they pulled out. They may have pulled out because they got the information that enabled them to resolve their differences themselves. They may have pulled out because they were not satisfied, but certainly they were told at the beginning that they could come out at any time if they felt that they could now resolve their differences. That was the object of the exercise. I think that is an important thing to stress because this was not just mediation. This was two quite intensive information-giving sessions and you did not attend with the other parent. You attended with a whole lot of other parents but the other parent of your child went to a different session and you had two of those sessions before you finally met together with a CAFCASS officer to try to see if you could find a resolution to your problems. The other difficulty is that we had hoped that we would get people through the project within about eight weeks, but that meant holding enough of those information-giving sessions for people to be able to come either in the afternoon or in the evening according to their work or childcare commitments, and pretty swiftly one after the other. Because we never got the critical mass of people into the project we were never able to hold those sessions as frequently as we would like and therefore the project took just as long as the court proceedings, which defeated part of the object of the exercise.

  Chairman: Thank you very much indeed. Thank you for giving us such a thorough analysis which I think will be very helpful in discussing where we go from here. Sir Mark Potter, Mr Justice Munby, Judge Crichton, Ms Damazer, thank you very much indeed for your help this afternoon.

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