I’d like to write a blog post but I don’t have the time…

Things are busy here.

I don’t have time to say anything terribly considered or even very interesting, but I just place this marker down that the workloads for all of us are not reducing (judges, lawyers, social workers, court staff…), and things are really tough out there.

9am hearings, lunchtime hearings, 4pm or even 4.30pm hearings – even in non urgent cases – are becoming normalised in the family court. This should not be happening. I challenge it when I can – for my own sake and that of colleagues – but our commitment to our clients and our cases sometimes makes this a hard line to hold. I do not pretend that I have not agreed on occasion, in particular cases. I’m not a militant or a purist, but I am really worried.

I know judges only started doing this out of necessity themselves, but I can feel us sliding ever faster down a very slippery slope, and my digging my heels in is no longer enough to counter the momentum that has begun to gather. 8am starts, 6pm finishes even on a non-trial day – and hours and hours of prep before and after. How did we get to this? When are we supposed to eat, sleep and breathe? When are we supposed to percolate? I need percolation time to be my best barristery self, to brew those eureka moments.

Once again, I hope and pray that someone up there (senior person not heavenly being) will find a way to make it stop. Not just for the sake of the lawyers, but for the judges too. They are not imposing such listings for fun, but the once unthinkable has very quickly become normalised. And they will all be burnt out too, if we aren’t careful. As if ‘lack of availability of judges’ is not a big enough problem already…At a time when we are standing out care final hearings for want of a judge and some parts of the country are taking half a year to get a Cafcass report working longer hours is not actually the solution it might seem to be.

Not long ago when I protested in a meeting about the idea of early or late listing, a colleague helpfully countered by saying ‘Well I do what is necessary to protect the needs of my client’, the implication apparently being that anyone who doesn’t agree doesn’t give a sh*t. Solidarity is in short supply these days, but we have to have each other’s backs. We must politely resist when we can  to protect ourselves, our colleagues (especially the more junior, who may often have care responsibilities for little ones) and to protect the integrity of the system – for the benefit of all our clients. It’s not selfish. It’s essential.

As we say here at familoo towers every morning before school : Have fun, work hard, try your best, be kind. But don’t give in to extended operating hours by stealth. (ok, we don’t say that last bit, but you get my drift)

Oh, and just like that – I seem to have written a blog post! Huzzah.

May the Fourth be with you (soon)…

FCWAL 3 Cover

I have finally begun updating The Family Court without a Lawyer. Since its been four years since the last edition, preparation of this fourth edition is a somewhat chunkier task than was the third.

The reason for the gap between editions is threefold : in the beginning there wasn’t much need, but subsequently there has been a sort of repetitive cycle of me not having the time and energy and there being some major piece of law reform tantalisingly poised on the horizon, so ‘we might as well just wait for that before wasting time updating’. A few of those have turned out to be mirages, but we are now approaching the watering hole and it looks reasonably certain, that come the spring there will be two major new pieces of law actually in force, changing the landscape in ways that really do require a rewrite. Those are The Divorce, Dissolution Act 2020 (which introduces no fault divorce) and The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (which, amongst other things, will prohibit direct questioning of one partner by the other where there are allegations of domestic abuse).

There is in fact, an accrual of other stuff over time that also needs to be incorporated – changes in legal aid eligibility, the shift in the court’s approach to domestic abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviour, the developments around vulnerable witnesses and special measures, the impact of the pandemic on hearing formats on delays and on the ‘deregulation’ of Child Arrangements as temporary covid practice directions enabled local practices to be piloted outside of the structures of the Child Arrangements Programme – even Brexit – all these need to be factored in.

There is inevitably still a lot of stuff that is floating in the ether and which I won’t be able to pin down or predict before going to print  – stuff that is under review and might or might not change and which I will just have to flag in a chapter at the end. Private law procedure is in flux generally, and there are many suggestions for reform contained in the reports of the Private Law Working Group, the Harms report, the Family Solutions Group – and whilst there are assorted pilots on the horizon nobody really seems to know quite what they will entail, or even when they will start, let alone where we will be in two years time. I’m not even sure anyone knows who is actually in charge of family justice reform. I am on the Justice Working Party on Improving Access to Justice for Separating Families, which is also looking at these issues, so that means (or should mean) that I’m reasonably up to speed, but the truth is that I am finding it all a bit mind boggling – so what hope for litigants in person or those who want to help explain the landscape and options to them? The best we can hope for by the time of publication is, I suspect, to know what pilots are underway – but as to how they will go and whether they will be rolled out more widely, who knows. What I can say is that the fracturing of practice in different localities makes it really hard to produce useful and reliable information to help people know what to expect if make or are served with an application about child arrangements. What is happening in one city or region may look very different from how things are done in the neighbouring courts – and I don’t think that is going to improve any time soon.

If FCWAL has been useful to you I’d love to hear from you about what could be improved or added. There is a balance to be struck – a book untended to be a general guide can’t ever capture every eventuality, and if I tried it would detract from the aims of making the book easy to navigate – but there is always room for improvement, so suggestions are very much welcomed.