Lord Justice Ryder releases report for Family Court Modernisation

1 August 2012

Family courts need a radical change of culture to combat "unacceptably long delays" caused by a system struggling to cope with an influx of care cases following the Baby Peter tragedy and planned cuts to legal aid, the lord chief justice has said.

The reforms will bring in specialist family judges under one roof, emphasising "strong judicial leadership and management" in a bid to reduce the culture of delay. This involves a shift towards a more inquisitorial approach and away from the traditional adversarial system, allowing each judge to control the allocation and management of cases.

It criticises the current way expert evidence is heard in family cases, describing experts as "misused and overused". Judges will have more control over whether the court needs to hear from an independent social worker or psychologist.

The creation of a single family court means cases now heard in magistrates, county or specialist courts will instead all be dealt with by the same system, including civil partnership and forced marriage proceedings. The high court will remain separate, although high court judges will regularly sit in the family court.

The report highlights the importance of engaging with children to help them to understand the court process, to ascertain their wishes and feelings and to explain the court's decision. Ryder wants courts to consider the impact on the welfare of the child whenever a party asks to delay a case. Under the proposals, cases will be limited to a strict 26-week timetable and the increase use of Family Group Conference which was described by Judge as best practice.

Commenting on the report, the president of the Law Society, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, said: "Effective case-management is vital to reducing delays in the family courts. Judicial continuity, specialisation and leadership are all essential to good case-management.

"Fast-tracking child care cases will help to identify those cases that can be finished within the government's proposed 26-week time limit. Delays also need to be reduced in cases where separating and divorcing couples are seeking the court's help in making arrangements for their children.

"However, achieving these aims without additional resources will be a challenge. The rise in numbers of unrepresented participants, following the cuts to legal aid, will put enormous pressure on the courts and the family justice system as a whole. There is an immediate challenge to develop effective methods of assisting parents without legal representation in private law cases."