Limits on how early or late lawyers can email each may be needed to avoid burn-out given the “remorseless” pressure the system is under, the president of the Family Division has suggested.
Sir Andrew McFarlane also said “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 are being address.
In his first ‘View from The President’s Chambers’ since taking the role, Sir Andrew described the “high level of workload in the system” and said three working groups – on public law cases, private law cases and the shortage of experts – had started looking at how to ameliorate the problems.
“In the meantime, every professional engaged in work in the family courts must, I fear, continue to experience the adverse impact of the high volume of cases,” he continued.
“I have, on every occasion that I have spoken about these issues, stressed my concern for the wellbeing of social workers, lawyers, judges and court staff who are conscientiously continuing to deliver a professional service in a timely manner despite the increase in workload.”
While work continued to address the underlying causes, Sir Andrew said it was “neither necessary nor healthy for the courts and the professionals to attempt to undertake ‘business as usual’”.
He explained: “For the time being, some corners may have to be cut and some time-limits exceeded; to attempt to do otherwise in a situation where the pressure is sustained, remorseless and relentless, is to risk the burn-out of key and valued individuals in a system which is already sparely manned in terms of lawyers, court staff and judges.
“I would encourage local dialogue between the legal profession and each designated family judge on this topic 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”.
Another idea was to reduce the components to be expected in a ‘position statement’ to the minimum required – “for example, simply one side of A4 using bullet points” – on the basis that a fuller oral position could be outlined at court if required.
He acknowledged that judges and practitioners would always “go the extra mile for the sake of the child, the parties and the system when this is needed”, but said the current situation could not be accommodated “simply by working beyond what can reasonably be expected every now and again”.
The judge said: “My aim in now saying what I have is to give each of you, as the psychologists would say, ‘permission’ to have a sensible discussion with each other and establish a dialogue between local professionals and the local judiciary in order to develop sensible parameters and guidelines on what can, and what should not, be expected from those appearing before and working in the courts.”