Is there any part of the family justice system not being adversely affected by a lack of resources?
A quite astonishing experience recently in a Family Proceedings Court: already delayed care proceedings were being re-listed for final hearing and all advocates and all parties were united in their view that the case required a four day hearing, and that greater delay would most likely be caused by listing for the original allocation of 3 days, as the matter might have to go off part heard or be vacated. The Court Manager refused the Legal Advisor’s request to even search for a block of 4 days to enable the advocates to discuss timetabling back from the fixture, even when the clerk had re-argued the points made by the advocates at length on the telephone in court in front of the parties and the bench. Eventually the Magistrates took it upon themselves to formally rule that four days was required -the chair making a rather wry remark about the likelihood of his head being chopped off – and yet still the Court Manager refused the request. It was only upon further argument and when detailed explanation of the number of witnesses and issues to be resolved was again argued (a word deliberately chosen) by telephone by the poor legal adviser that the Court Manager ‘authorised’ that 4 days could be searched for and booked. I can tell you that eyes were rolling on both sides of the bench by the time we sorted it out.
This is all wrong and is a very bad sign. Whilst resources are clearly to be carefully husbanded it is for the Magistrates to take decisions about what the interests of justice require in any given case, and if the Magistrates rule that four days is required that is the end of it: the Court Manager’s job is simply to facilitate it. The charade I witnessed in court undermines confidence in the Magistrates, and the system at large, notwithstanding that these Magistrates did eventually stand up to the Manager. It also put the legal advisor in an extremely invidious position. And the policy of refusing to even indicate when the next slot of a particular length might be available to enable advocates to put together sensible draft directions for the bench to consider is simply obstructive and in our case extended the length of the hearing considerably because we had to construct detailed directions during the hearing as different dates were proposed, with people popping in and out to make phonecalls about availability (At the outset of the morning I had sought information on behalf of all advocates as to the next available 3 days slot so we could think through possibilities and seek availability of our experts – and was politely told where to go). All at court and being paid whilst this was dealt with in unnecessarily protracted fashion were 5 lawyers, 3 social workers, and 2 Reliance officers (escorting a party produced from prison). And the legal advisor missed half his lunch break.
Result: no money saved for HMCS, but a considerable additional expense to the legal aid fund, to the Local Authority and to the Prison Service. Job well done, I say.