A national template of working practices in the family courts – dealing with issues such as how late lawyers can email each other – could be developed to protect their wellbeing, the president of the Family Division has said.
Sir Andrew McFarlane said he had been “heartened” by the focus on wellbeing he had witnessed when meeting court staff and professionals in his visits to courts across the country – but also the “surprisingly good level of morale”.
In January, he said the “remorseless” pressure the system was under meant “some corners may have to be cut and some time-limits exceeded” to ensure the wellbeing of lawyers, judges and others while the systemic problems were being address.
He encouraged local dialogue between the legal profession and each designated family judge (DFJ) “so that some parameters may be agreed as to what is and is not sensible or acceptable in terms of working practices during the next six months or more”.
He suggested that these discussions should look at court sitting hours, as well as “the latest time in the evening, and the earliest time in the morning, when it is acceptable to send an email to another lawyer in a case or to the court”.
In his latest ‘View from the president’s chamber’, Sir Andrew said it was “crystal clear that there is indeed a need to own up to the impact of the current workload in emotional, social and physical terms on each of us in whatever role we play in the family justice system”.
There was an appetite in each locality to discuss these matters collectively “and I am pleased to learn of individual DFJ areas beginning to produce agreed statements of understanding as to specific working practices”.
But he acknowledged that developing local practices “has the clear potential to cause difficulties for those who practice across different court centres”.
Sir Andrew continued: “I have nevertheless encouraged local conversations and the production of local statements because I believe that that is much more likely to result in changes in working practices that are actually taken up on the ground and ‘owned’ by all involved, rather than there being some dictat or other issued nationally by the president and the national professional bodies.
“My hope is that, once we see what has been developed locally, it will be possible to identify key points of common ground (I cannot think that the various local practices that will be identified will be very radically different from each other) from which a national template may be drawn and issued to identify the bottom line expectations that should apply to all court centres.”