Sir Andrew McFarlane, the president of the Family Division of the High Court and the most senior family court judge in England and Wales has stated that everyone working in “family justice” is currently operating at the “extent of their capacity”.
He has outlined that a significant number of agencies and law firms have had to “ration” their use of resources as demand in some areas has exceeded the capacity to deliver, and said there is an “unacceptable delay” in listing cases.
Sir Andrew McFarlane shared his thoughts in the latest edition of a regular online message to lawyers.
He said it was “timely” to take stock of the “state of health of the family justice system” as England and Wales began to move out of “Omicrom variant restrictions ………….. the reality which is that the volume of outstanding work in the family court is at an all-time high.”
He noted that : “Agencies, such as CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) and NYAS (The National Youth Advocacy Service), have had to ration the use of their resources as demand, at least in some areas, has exceeded their capacity to deliver.
“I know that the same is also true for some solicitors’ firms, barristers’ chambers, expert witnesses and others.
“In the court, despite continuing to deploy significantly more judicial resources each month than was the case pre-Covid, the backlog remains stubbornly high, with a consequence that there is unacceptable delay in listing cases.”
Sir Andrew said family courts worked in a “dynamic context” where the life of the participants continued to be lived and it was not unusual for fresh events to occur within ongoing proceedings.
He added: “Backlog and delay in the Family Court are not, therefore, static; like dough proofing on a baker’s shelf, they have the potential to feed on themselves and grow the longer cases are left without a final resolution.”
He said there was “no single, let alone simple” answer to the question “what is to be done?”
Sir Andrew underscored that a “range of initiatives”, aimed at bringing the backlog and individual workloads back within “reasonable bounds” – while maintaining “our commitment to deliver justice” – were in motion.
He said he wanted to “increase the efficiency of the court process”.
“My primary theme for the coming months is ‘make every hearing count’ as the number of concluded cases in both private and public law has not gone down and statistically it is shown that the number of hearings that are held before a case is concluded has increased.”
He said one suggestion, put forward by a working group, was for judges dealing with parental disputes about children to “support them in the resolution of dispute” rather than apply the “more traditional adversarial mode.”
Here at Women’s McKenzie Friend we have seen the pattern of an increase in delayed and extended hearings where the courts take months, not weeks, to set directions hearings; and where circumstances change fast or significantly within this timeframe which can hinder the progress of the courts in bringing cases to a timely conclusion.