The value of nothing – why is the solution always a committee?

I’ve spent some time wrangling the weeds and the invasive species in my garden this bank holiday weekend. Digging out a giant bamboo that I once used to fill an inconvenient hole in my border and which has now formed an underground network of shoots that has taken over everything. It looks good, but it has taken over the space where the flowers should be.

Too many committees are bad for your health. Also, they are terrible for productivity. The solution to every problem in the family justice world is another flipping committee. Maybe with a subcommittee or three. An invasive species. Do not expect flowers.

I’m being facetious. A bit. I’ve got a case of the grumpy old gits and the seen it all befores.

I sometimes feel as if everything I read about fancy new ideas that will divert families or resolve disputes, that will speed up proceedings or reduce harm is something that someone, somewhere suggested and probably piloted 10 or 15 years ago, before their attention was diverted by the next brilliant new idea.

I was once that enthusiastic youth popping up at committees with my own bright ideas, baffled at why the elderly ones in their forties (guffaw) were so stuck in their ways. I know now they had probably heard it all before and were furiously and silently reciting ‘if you can’t say nothing nice, say nothing at all’ like some sort of incanted internal monologue. I know that because now I’m that person. God, I hate it.

Of course, I’m exaggerating for effect. There are good new ideas and absolutely ‘yay’ for them. But separating the wheat from the dross is harder than unmixing my metaphors.

If I may be a tiny bit ‘glass half empty’ for a moment, I suppose what is so frustrating…so depressing, is how glacial change is, and how little has actually been achieved in comparison to the volume and relentless talk we do in committees. If the family justice system could divert the energy and time spent talking about great new ideas or rehashed previously-new-ideas into actually making change happen – well, things would look very different.

The amount of time that lawyers and other professionals give up for free to sit on committees each year is phenomenal. It does not always translate well into change on the ground. The reliance within the family justice system upon committees populated by volunteers is inefficient and is increasingly unsustainable. I say this as the woman who finds a committee irresistible, and who has been on more committees than I’ve seen hot takes on twitter. Chambers committees, SBA committees, judicial committees, charity committees, academic committees, ad hoc investigative committees…

I am feeling somewhat disillusioned. It’s not just the inefficiency, its the systemic taking for granted that we will give our time for free and that because membership of an important committee is seen to be a career booster, the powers that be can sit on, delay or discard the product of our toil as is convenient in the moment.

Take the Family Justice Council as an example (I’m not on it). It has an unfortunate habit of losing its projects down the back of the sofa. I’m thinking here of the Covert Recording Guidance which the council were tasked with by the Court of Appeal in 2016. A first draft was circulated in December 2018. I recall the date clearly, because I was first sent it on the day I was due to participate in the FJC annual debate on the topic of covert recording and I didn’t have time to read it (I later politely pointed out that the Data Protection Act referred to in their draft had been repealed and replaced during the drafting process with a new Act). A revised draft was sent out for consultation in…2022. Yes, that’s four years later. Again, I spent time offering what I hope was constructive feedback, but in spite of a raft of talks announcing and giving sneak previews of the anticipated guidance in 2023, the draft has not seen the light of day and the publicly available minutes (woefully out of date) have also run silent on the topic. Having enquired on numerous occasions over a now 8 year period as to the expected publication date, feels a bit like gaslighting by committee. Did I imagine that they were ever doing this? Was it all a dream?

Presumably the Draft Domestic Abuse Guidance that we spent hours commenting on in around 2020 or 2021 (I now forget) has gone the same way. Also never published.

And the Parental Alienation Guidance which was out for consultation in 2023? That’s all gone mysteriously quiet too.

It would be polite at least to update the website telling those individuals and organisations who have responded to requests for them to give up their time by responding to drafts, what is happening and what the expected publication date for these documents now is. Or, if the project has been abandoned, why that is. One suspects (perhaps unfairly) that they have gone in the ‘too hard’ box.

That is not to say the FJC does nothing. It does produce some great work, so there is lots going on – but it is the direction in which the Court of Appeal lob any tricky issue that they don’t feel they can tackle – and from the outside it appears that they are perpetually overwhelmed.

UPDATE 31 May – Jan 24 mins now up on FJC website and show some potential progress on PA (consultation responses to be considered in Feb) and Covert Recording Guidance (nearly ready). Still no actual guidance though…

The Family Procedure Rule Committee is the same. For nerds like me who read their minutes (currently with only a modest time lag of a couple of months to publication) one can see that they have a vast workload and everything has to be ruthlessly prioritised. The inability of the Rule Committee to deal with the volume of work timeously is no doubt one reason why there is increasing reliance upon informal guidance in various guises (see for example the entire FRC framework and the Reporting Pilot).

Then there are the judicial mega-committees, with vast memberships of eager lawyers (and others), producing equally vast and detailed reports. Think Public Law Working Group, Transparency Implementation Group, all with a complex network of subcommittees. The cumulative total of hours and hours of time given up by lawyers to power these committees is phenomenal. Every so often they churn out a lengthy report which is located somewhere unfindable on the judiciary website (down the back of the judicial sofa) and which most lawyers have no time to read and absorb, either because all their free time is spent on committees or they can’t afford to spend spend time on talking shops, let alone reading lengthy reports (though they might read the powerpoint summary produced by one of the committee’s members whilst off on a talking tour to spread the word).

The TIG was created in December 2021 following the publication of the President’s Transparency Review, which made a raft of substantial recommendations for reform. A few of those reforms have been implemented via the TIG (most notably the Reporting Pilot), but I challenge you to find evidence in the public domain as to what is happening on most of the rest. I’m a member of that committee (and four of its five subcommittees) and I can tell you that the cumulative hours spent at TIG meetings, and doing TIG related stuff is vast. And yet, much of that work remains invisible, unpublished, delayed, unfunded – and where things are published, I am invariably told by anyone I ask ‘nope, never heard of that’. All that work. Read by a handful of people. Because frankly, most people doing the job have enough of a time of it just keeping their heads above water.

Underlying the difficulties of all these committees is the disconnect between time given for free by (mainly) lawyers and the actual resource to convert ideas into reality. There is usually some civil service ‘support’ for such committees, but this is essentially administrative / secretarial (or takes the form of telling enthusiastic lawyers that their ideas can’t be converted into reality either because of lack of funds or ministerial interest). Judges in committee can say ‘make it so!’ in ten different ways, but if there are no resources to make it in fact ‘so’ the committee is just decorative and the time and energy given by the lawyers wasted. I have personally and in ten different (increasingly irked) ways remonstrated about the essential need for an Anonymisation Unit to support safe publication of judgments, but since nobody is willing to fund it, and Transparency Implementation Group has no magic beans with which to implement, there is no Anonymisation Unit and all those many, many hours thinking up new ways to say the same thing are down the toilet. What is the point if there is no money?

Of course I hear you say ‘well nobody is making you join, and nobody is forcing you to respond to that consultation’. True. I could just stick two fingers up to all the committees I am on. But the reasons why lawyers join committees are layered and complex, and are about far more than career advancement. It’s true that membership of a committee is something to put on a CV, and is a useful means of networking. But more than that, we do it because we think we have something to offer and want to help – perhaps we are frustrated about practice in a particular area and think we can help to improve things. Many of us have a sense of duty to give back to our legal committee, and I for one find saying ‘No’ very difficult. But membership of a committee can be interesting and invigorating. One can learn and gain experience and insight, make connections, satisfy ones general nosy instincts, better understand just WHY it is that changes that appear obvious from the outside are actually really hard to achieve in practice. I have greatly enjoyed much of my time on committees, have met some fantastic colleagues and friends and have seen just how much collective energy is there to be harnessed. And sometimes – just sometimes – you are able to cut through the inertia or groupthink and through the committee see your idea become a reality. So I do and I will keep on trying, in spite of the frustrations.

In most walks of life where a professional is expected to spend not insubstantial amounts of time and give their expertise in order to enact reform they would (not unreasonably) expect to be paid, if not for their time at least their expenses. I’ve only ever been on one family law committee which offered travel expenses (and when I was younger and more skint and meetings could not realistically be attended remotely, I would not have been able to afford to continue on it without). Whilst there are many powerful motivators that will ensure that most committees are reasonably well populated, my anecdotal observation is that there seems to be a general dip across the board in reliability of attendance, inability to commit to projects above and beyond attendance at committee meetings, and in the ability of committees to finish what they have started or to get through the work. And that is because, at a system wide level, everyone has too much on their plate.

An already overloaded system really should not be dependent on an army of volunteers racing from court to advocates meeting to committee meeting to the extent that we are (and of course if its not doing stuff for free via committees we are expected to do stuff pro bono for those who are no longer eligible for legal aid, or almost for free via the QLR scheme). Some of our more burdensome committees really should involve some element of reimbursement or allowance for those takin on more demanding roles or for those who might otherwise be excluded.

This is not new, it is deeply embedded in our culture. It was never particularly healthy, but now everyone is perpetually near burn out it is increasingly unwise. I remember once, a long, long time ago, a well intentioned senior leadership judge asked me to draft a guidance document for litigants in person, basically to redraft and condense the book I had just published to be distributed for free. I was not long out of maternity leave, had exhausted my aged debt, was trying to get my practice back on its feet and terribly worried about money. Of course I wanted to be involved in some project that might help others and get me noticed, but how could I? I took a deep breath and asked him what funds were available. As I had fully anticipated, answer came there none and the idea was instantly dropped. It takes only a moment’s thought to realise that this request, which involved me giving my intellectual property away for free, spending many hours for free converting it to a format which could have the judiciary’s stamp of approval put on it, and potentially robbing myself and my publisher of any future return on investment for the many hours spent writing the book – was exploitative. I said no to that request (by asking to be paid) because I simply couldn’t afford to do what I was asked.

My senior leadership example is an extreme one, but that judge who asked me to give away my time and work for free put me in a really difficult position – and it was entirely normalised. He probably thought I had a cheek for asking. Our entire system is built upon the normalisation of squeezing free work out of lawyers, some of whom probably really don’t have time to give. I think we have to ask ourselves the question – how much of our system relies upon exploitation of those who can’t say no, and does our reliance on those who can give their time for free exclude some from a seat at the committee table?

I now routinely say no to commercial organisations who offer me the ‘opportunity’ to spend hours preparing a talk and speaking for free so that they can monetise my work on their website or conference. No darling, I don’t need the ‘exposure’. Whilst for a junior lawyer wanting to be seen the quid pro quo may well be worth it, ultimately this is a practice which exploits our insecurities as lawyers. It is a practice seen across the freelance world, and freelancers with an ounce of business nous or self worth simply ask ‘What’s the fee?’. I’m happy to give my time for free where its genuinely needed, but I won’t do it to line someone else’s pocket, to be exploited or taken for granted.

If we truly want to build effective and diverse committees full of the best ideas, and if we want to improve our conversion rate from committee paper to reality, then we need to be better at respecting and valuing people’s contributions. We need to find ways of squaring the platitudinous ‘wellbeing’ messaging with the reality of what is expected of us all just to keep the system ticking over, let alone improving it for the future.

2 thoughts on “The value of nothing – why is the solution always a committee?

  1. “Committees take minutes and waste hours”

    “A committee is a group of people who separately can do nothing but together decide that nothing can be done”.

  2. Nick Langford

    The Circumlocution Office is alive and well. Was anything ever achieved by committee? I’ve only ever served on one and ended up chairing it; it was, as Munby might have remarked, ‘an exercise in absolute futility’. I was eventually unceremoniously pushed out by a man who coveted the role but did nothing with it. He did me a favour.
    Might I suggest there are better things you could do with your time?
    It’s not particularly relevant, but I’m reminded of Lord Silkin’s comments on Royal Commissions during the 1956 debate on the Marriage and Divorce Bill,
    ‘As your Lordships will be aware, this is a recognised and timely method of shelving inconvenient questions, and this very inconvenient question was shelved for a number of years. The trouble about Royal Commissions, however, is that they do eventually report, and the Report comes home to roost. It does not always come home to roost in the nest of the particular bird that hatched it… ‘

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