Family procedure: consultation under way

In his short period in office Sir James Munby P has made reform of the family court system a distinctly personal affair. Following Sir James’s 13th fenestral musing (13th View from the President’s Chambers: The process of reform: an update ) there are probably as many as five (perhaps more) consultations under way:

• ‘Transparency – The Next Steps: A Consultation Paper issued by the President of the Family Division on 15 August 2014’ see eg
• Vulnerable Witness Working Group: see ‘Interim Report of the Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group – 31 July 2014’
• Draft standard orders – for a compendium of these see
• As ‘Report of the Financial Remedies Working Group – 31 July 2014’
• Litigants in person – somewhere in the back-ground between the various court systems that comprise out fractured system of civil justice a debate is going on about the position of litigants in person in civil procedure (including family proceedings): see eg Judicial Working Group on Litigants in Person – 5 July 2013

There are also other straws in the Presidential wind as seen from his window, including:

• Expert evidence after Children and Families Act 2014 s 13
• Legal aid after Q v Q (No 2) [2014] EWFC 31: ‘what is to be done?’ says the President.
• Divorce; and its separation from the family procedural system

At this stage I can only urge caution at the speed with which the results of these consultations are pursued; for, as with a car which is driven too fast, speed can cause injury – in this case, to bring the metaphor back to family courts, to children and others who cannot protect themselves against the President’s ardour. Momentum must surely be preserved; but that is not the same as haste. Reflection is important. Ill-considered haste breeds mistakes. Not only will bad reform decisions be made; but then children and other vulnerable individuals – who deserve protection in the family court system – may be hurt.

Protected witnesses: breadth of reform

The initiative which most affects the welfare of children in the above list, I would suggest, is that on what is called ‘vulnerable witnesses’. The working group, it seems with Sir James’s encouragement, wants to produce one rule change to cover this subject – yes, only one, they say.

If ‘vulnerable witnesses’ – I should prefer the wider concept of ‘protected individuals’ – are to be given the rights and help they need in a system of fairness for families (not only for children) a number of the other subjects cross over into reforms. Such subjects would include: the rights/demands of litigants in person (see eg H v L and R [2006] EWHC 3099 (Fam) and the President’s own Q v Q (No 2) [2014] EWFC 31); and confidentiality issues which arise from the transparency consultation paper. Is the working group speaking of ‘vulnerable witnesses’ only; or do they not, in reality, mean a much wider group? Do they not mean parties and witnesses – two quite different procedural components – who may in fact be ‘vulnerable’? Do they mean children who want to talk to the judge dealing with their case, who are not ‘vulnerable’ at all: they just want to be heard? Do they – or should they? – mean the vulnerable child welfare informer like the unquestionably ‘vulnerable’ X in Re A (A Child) [2012] UKSC 60?

These questions – and a variety of others – raise issues much wider than the working group seem so far to have considered at their one meeting (from which they have already produced ‘proposals and initial recommendations’: how open is the door on this ‘consultation’?). Rule changes – if of family proceedings only (but why not do the job properly and cover all civil proceedings?) – will be required to Parts 4, 16, 21 and 22 (better still one pervasive FPR 2010 Part). Substantive law changes may be needed – eg a definition of ‘protected individuals’; the position of litigants in person; perhaps a role for advocates to the court and rights for the child welfare informant – which were overlooked in the rush to get the meagre provisions of Children and Families Act 2014 part 2 onto the statute book.

And yes, much needs to be done on legal aid – help for funding of family proceedings. The President asks ‘What is to be done’? He or his office, I respectfully suggest, could start by reading some thoughts from this author at ‘Possibilities for state funding after Q v Q’ – and ‘State funding family cases after Q v Q; Re B; Re C [2014] EWFC 31’ – .

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