'Normal' court hours clarified by family court president
By Nicola Laver
The president of the Family Division has made clear that longer court hours are not sustainable long-term, and normal sitting hours are 10.00am to 4.30pm
The president of the Family Division has made clear that longer court hours are not sustainable, and normal sitting hours are 10.00am to 4.30pm.
Sir Andrew McFarlane has published his vision of The Road Ahead 2021, following the imposition of a new national lockdown which could last some weeks.
He said he was “profoundly confident that the ‘can do’ approach that has been the hallmark of the Family Court from Day One will continue and will see us through”
He said that with the immediate period of “enhanced provision of remote hearings” followed by a more relaxed period of remote/hybrid hearings over the next six months, the need to maintain and enhance good practice remains a priority for all those in the family court over the coming months.
Commenting on the controversial issue of so-called ‘covid hours’, he said: “Widespread reports suggest that this time [before and after court spent in preparation, drafting and discussion/negotiation] is now regularly being taken up by additional hearings – some starting as early as 8.00am or commencing at 4.30pm...
“I am clear that this development, laudable though the reasons behind it plainly are, is not tenable in terms of the human resources and well-being of all concerned. What is achievable in a sprint, is not sustainable in a marathon.”
He said it was therefore necessary to clarify that “the normal sitting hours of the family court are between 10.00am and 4.30pm, with an adequate adjournment at lunchtime”.
“Whilst a judge may decide that additional hearing time will be allocated outside these parameters”, he added, “this should be seen as an exceptional occurrence, and not the norm, and should be limited to no more than a 30-minute extension to the court day.”
Genuinely urgent cases will continue to be allocated the necessary hearing time.
The president said that his guidance in The Road Ahead last June continues to apply, particularly highlighting its key message around time management and the related issues.
The president urged professionals working in the family court to remind themselves of the covid case management checklist in that earlier publication, focusing on narrowing the issues, the hearing format and optimising fairness in remote hearings.
He added that there are “clear lessons, both large and small, to be learned” from the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory report on remote hearings, particularly that “for some parents at least, the experience of remote hearings may fall below what is acceptable in terms of fairness and justice”.
He acknowledged the improvements to access to adequate technology over the last few months, but said “enhanced vigilance is required to ensure that the lay party is engaged with the court process”.
“The pressure of work in the courts, and the backlog of cases, are matters that concern the system as a whole. They will not be resolved by individuals working beyond reasonable capacity, but by increased resources and strategic, system-wide changes in the way cases are dealt with,” said the president.
However, resources have been increasing in terms of equipment, staff numbers and judge sitting days, he added.