Operation of the Family Courts - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence from the Public and Commercial Services Union (FC 29)



The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is the largest trade union in the civil service. We have over 300,000 members and represent over 60% of staff in the Ministry of Justice. Our members work in Her Majesty's Court Service (HMCS) undertaking all the key duties in the full range of posts necessary for the court system to operate. Our members provide services for all courts from Magistrates' Courts to the Appeal Courts as well as the Probate Service. These range from Justices' Clerks, Regional and Area directors, Legal Advisers, Court Clerks, Court Ushers, Court Managers and administrative staff, including those who deal with enquiries from the public in family cases and prepare the papers for court.

The current trend in justice is to focus on "efficiency" another word for cuts. PCS contend that in relation to family courts the Ministry of Justice should be focusing on the needs of vulnerable children and of court users and considering the best way to deliver family justice. The courts used for family hearings are part of the wider court estate and our members in some areas of the country indicate that the amount of family work continues to increase. There is an apparent absence of strategic thinking in relation to family justice and it is a potential casualty in the strategy of the bigger civil and criminal courts.


Most of the cases relating to children and families are heard in either the Family Proceedings Court which is part of the Magistrates' Court or in the County Court. The Children Act 1989 gives the two courts concurrent jurisdiction on cases relating to residence and contact for children (formerly know as custody and access). The Family Proceedings Courts and County Courts both have jurisdiction in child protection cases, these all start in the Family Proceedings Court with the more complex cases being transferred to the County Court Care Centres.

There has been a trend towards large hearing centres for family cases and particularly those cases dealing with child protection. There needs to be a balance between service and efficiency. Hearing more than one case in a court house can lead to the best use of courtrooms but it can also lead to cases being heard in the absence of parties who find it difficult to get to the large central court and cannot afford repeated journeys.

Among the parents who are parties to child protection cases there is a much higher level of disability than in the population as a whole. It is often an aspect of their disability such as learning difficulties, mental health issues or even physical limitations which lead to their care of their children coming before the court. These parents are not as mobile as the majority of the population and are disadvantaged by their cases being heard a distance from their home.

On 23 June 2010 the Government announced a public consultation on the future of the Court Service proposing the closure of 103 Magistrates' and 54 County Courts in England and Wales. This represents over a third of Magistrates' and County Courts and is likely to result in up to 1,000 job losses.

Whilst there has been public consultation on the closure and rationalisation of courts in the past, there has never been an announcement of proposals for England and Wales of this size and scale before. The consultation is in the form of 16 consultation documents one from each of Her Majesty's Court Service Administrative Areas. Some areas have made it very clear which courts hear family cases others have been less transparent. The consultation has taken place over the main summer holiday period restricting the opportunity of the public to respond and is for the minimum period recommended by the cabinet office.

The HMCS consultation is based on a number of key principles: greater utilisation of the courts; greater co-location of criminal and civil courts with tribunal hearing centres; larger courts; access to courts enabling the majority of the public to be within an hour's commute to their nearest court by public transport.PCS shares the desire to ensure that the courts are an efficient service and fit for purpose in the 21st century and we will continue to support changes which improve the service to the public and the Judiciary that our members provide. However, PCS is concerned that the proposals will damage the principles on which the justice system has been founded. Whether it is a County Court or a Family Proceedings Court a court must serve the community.

The consultation on court closures has been in the form of 16 separate consultation papers each relating to one of Her Majesty's Court Service administrative areas. In several cases where one area proposes to close those courts which are on the edge of the geographical area it administers, the adjoining administrative area has also chosen to close the courts near to the border. This leaves large rural and sometimes urban areas where there is no court house any one can visit. In rural areas public transport services are irregular and catching two buses can make it a very lengthy journey which is particularly difficult for those who also have caring responsibilities.

Seeking to balance efficiencies with the requirement to deal with justice locally is at the heart of the debate. We believe reducing the courts by a third and transferring the work of delivering justice to fewer larger centres well away from the communities where court users live undermines the requirement that the handling of local justice is done and seen to be done within the communities themselves. Citizens need to have confidence that the justice system works and is seen to work in their own communities.

A further concern is that many of the users of courts are from disadvantaged and poorer communities and are less adaptable as a result. The increased costs of travel which have been set out in the consultation documents will also disproportionately hit the poorer members of each community. We believe the outcome will be more expensive as a result, it will take more time for justice to be delivered cost more as a result and if, as we fear, it results in citizens not participating then the end result is that citizens in those communities will have less confidence in the delivery of justice. Delay in the family court must be considered in the timescales of a child a few weeks delay may seem nothing to and adult but may feel like an eternity to a young child.


For many years courts aimed to improve the service to family court users by ensuring that those attending for hearings about their private and family life were not entering buildings and waiting with those attending criminal proceedings in the Crown Court or Magistrates' Court. This is particularly important for the poorer and more vulnerable members of society who may live in the same deprived areas as the criminals.

The most recent consultation on court closures seems to suggest the greater co-location of criminal and civil courts is a good thing. In Warwickshire the Northern Justice Centre which houses the Family Proceedings Court is also a Police Station some court users will be very uncomfortable attending a family court in this building.

Traditionally Family Proceedings Courts were in the Magistrates' Courts, concerns about the impact of mixing with criminals led to buildings with separate entrances and waiting areas for family case. More recently the formation of Her Majesty's Court Service has led to Family Proceedings Courts and County Courts using the most suitable facilities for family hearings and sitting in adjoining rooms as in Coventry Magistrates' Court or on different floors in the same building as in the Priory Courts in Birmingham. However, not all courts have been able to acquire such facilities and one way of separating family cases has been to hear them in smaller court houses away from criminal work.

Some of the buildings proposed for closure are preferred by court users for family hearings for the very reason they are not frequented by criminals and their families and provide a better venue for family cases for instance Alton Magistrates' Court in Hampshire. Others such as the Yorkshire Courts of Selby and Bingley have had money spent on video link facilities for vulnerable witnesses and on disabled facilities which are not currently available at the court to which the work is moving.

Some closures such as the loss of Family Court facilities at Alnwick in Northumbria, Penrith in Cumbria, Skipton in North Yorkshire and Keighley and Bingley in the adjoining County of West Yorkshire leave large parts of the country with no courts at all.

The co-location of criminal and civil work needs to be carefully managed family cases demand privacy. If the buildings hearing family cases are closed now, it is unlikely they will be reopened.


PCS believe that the cuts are being rushed and may not produce the savings sought in the timescales envisaged. The impact on family justice has not been adequately considered.

Workload changes as the law changes. There has been a lot of pressure to move family work to the Family Proceeding Courts where cases can often be heard sooner and at less cost. Some of that work was being diverted from the County Court to mediation but court users with reduced family income due to pay freezes or unemployment may find themselves unable to afford mediation and financial pressures may cause an increase in family work.

Family cases relating to the protection of children or adults may need to be listed at very short notice. This applies to non molestation cases where an individual seeks the protection of the court for themselves and their children and emergency protection and care cases where the local authority seeks protection for a child. A reduction in the number of courtrooms available for family cases will lead to people having to travel to more distant locations and delay in hearing their case.

Percentage court usage figures on paper look like a powerful argument for closing courts however this measures actual usage not level of booking. High usage can only be achieved by listing several lengthy contested matters in the same court on the basis they will not all be effective. Sometimes this works out, at other times all contested hearings are effective and one or more has to be delayed to another date. This causes parties and witnesses distress and inconvenience. About a third of criminal trials and probably less family cases are effective on the hearing date and there are a multitude of reasons for this which the courts try constantly to address.

Further at the time that a court seeks to list a hearing for instance a contested application for an interim care order all courts may be full of either contested family cases or where the courtrooms are used interchangeably criminal trials reduction in the available court rooms will lead to delay.

In relation to family cases the level of the workload is not mentioned in the consultation papers, some urban courts are struggling with the number of family cases and lack of court rooms result in delays. At present some of the less used court houses are available to ease this pressure such as Witney (Magistrates' Court) in Oxfordshire and West Bromwich (Magistrates' Court) in the West Midlands.

The courts estate should be carefully considered. The consultation documents put forward many and varied reasons for closure. It may well be that some courts are in the wrong place and some are in the wrong building. Is the fact that the current building is inadequate a reason for losing all court provision from a major provincial centre, in some cases would it not be more appropriate to keep the service and find alternate premises?

Much has been said in recent years about making family justice transparent and this has been taken forward by inviting the press to attend and proposals to publish the transcript of these very private proceedings. Against this public confidence is not built by dealing with cases further away from where the parties live. If justice is a distant thing dealt with in the big town in a strange building it is remote from those whose lives it affects.

In the Family Proceedings Courts a family trained Legal Adviser is needed for each hearing. If there is no family Legal Adviser available on a particular day that hearing date will not be available. There has been an activity based costing model developed to determine the number of magistrates' court staff of each grade needed for each region. PCS have asked how the work of the Family Proceedings Court has been measured to inform that model and has never received an answer. There are different Senior Officers responsible for crime and family and we have seen no evidence that the needs of the Family Proceedings Court have been taken into account in determining the number of Legal Advisers needed.


The County Court in particular is moving towards a few large locations with much of the work being done in large offices. The court has focused on the needs of its large commercial customers who are constantly collecting debts and seeking repossession of property. The needs of the individual with a family problem are is lost. The model is one of business not service of process not justice.

PCS is very concerned about the loss of our members' jobs in the Court Service as a consequence of the proposed court closures. There are fears that the transfer of work from the courts identified for closure to other larger courts will result in delays in the time it will take for cases to be heard. Our view remains that justice delayed is justice denied.

The vision for the County Court of bulk processing and centralised telephone systems does not take into account the needs of the vulnerable and disabled. Cuts in the legal aid budget have resulted in increasing numbers of parents on moderate incomes dealing with family cases without legal representation this becomes more difficult when the local court closes and they have to do everything by post and telephone.

We believe that the job losses are an underestimate. Other likely changes, such as further centralisation of work currently done in county courts and magistrates courts to other centres will result in further job cuts, in the courts that remain.

We believe the idea that court staff can be divided into front line and "back office" is flawed. In smaller courts the staff undertake a variety of roles and will all be involved with dealing directly with the public. The transfer of some processes to large centres will lead to staff being less skilled and less able to assist court users.


In family cases relating to children the officer from CAFCASS is plays a key role in ensuring that the court is aware of the wishes, feelings and interests of a child. This role is undertaken by a Children and Families Adviser in Private Law cases relating to contact, residence, parental responsibility and specific issues such as education and religion. In Public Law applications for Care or Supervision Orders the role is undertaken by a Children's Guardian. The Guardian is the independent voice of the child. Local Authorities are driven by a number of concerns relating to finance, targets and policy. Whereas a Children's Guardian is the person who voices the wishes and feelings or needs (depending on age) of a child in cases where it is being argued that the parents are unable to care for or protect or are neglecting or harming the child.

PCS members working in the courts, particularly the Legal Advisers in the Family Proceedings Courts, are aware that the demands on the individual Guardians are competing. On the one hand the "Public Law Outline" which sets the standards for care proceedings requires initial and final reports from a Children's Guardian and envisages that this will be the same individual. The initial report is required by the sixth week after the application is issued. In conflict with this CAFCASS managers have been moving away from individual Children's Guardian's who take full responsibility for a care case and check carefully that the Local Authority are looking at the interests of a child. Often the application is more than six weeks old before the Children's Guardian is appointed and Guardian's are instructed not to scrutinise Local Authority Files.

There is a real tension between the demands of the legal system for an independent voice of the child and the available resources at the front line in CAFCASS. The vital role of the Children's Guardian cannot be eroded there are some things which must be provided to ensure justice and an independent and dedicated Guardian to properly scrutinise the actions of the Local Authority in a case where a child is being removed from parents is surely a key protection which should not be undermined.

There has been pressure to make family court cases more transparent Members of Parliament see constituents who feel aggrieved about the way a child has been taken from them by a Local Authority, some have a genuine grievance others have been unable to put the needs of the child before their own needs. Members of Parliament faced with these grievances find it difficult to assist these constituents because of the necessary privacy to protect those children. However, the one safeguard the legal system gave to these children was an independent Children's Guardian with the expertise to scrutinise the actions of the Local Authority and report to the court. If this safeguard is undermined the courts may not have all the issues they should consider brought to their attention.

We would ask the select committee to press the Department to ensure that the specific and particular needs of family justice are given the priority and resources needed for this sensitive area of work and that Justice does not become the main casualty to all the cuts in resources.

September 2010

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 14 July 2011