Mr Justice Ryder has published his final report on the modernisation of family justice, which makes recommendations which could be implemented by the judiciary. They are intended to change the culture of the family courts and reduce delays by introducing better management practices which improve continuity.
The report recommends introducing a single Family Court in the form of a network of Local Family Court Centres judicially led and managed by the Designated Family Judges, where all levels of judge and magistrate will sit as Judges of the Family Court. The Family Court will not absorb the High Court, but in future High Court judges will regularly sit in the Family Court support interpreting and applying legislation, rules, practice directions and existing case law in decisions that provide binding precedent.
Following a successful pilot, the HMCTS will continue a new case management system in the family courts that tracks every public law case issued and replaces the systems which are presently in use. The new system, which came into effect on 2 April, provides judges/legal advisers/benches with ongoing information updated for every hearing about the ages of the child or children they are dealing with, the length of time a case has been running, the number of hearings which there have been, any adjournments of hearings and applications for experts.
The report also recommends developing new methods of assisting litigants in person in private law cases as legal aid funding is being withdrawn. In acknowledging the difficulties the court and parties will face with self-representation the Mr Justice Ryder said: "What is clear is that the courts will have to deal with a volume of previously represented parents. They will not have had the benefit of legal advice to identify solutions to their problems or the merits and demerits of their proposals. They will not have had identified to them the issues the court can address before arrival at the court door. They will arrive without professionally advised applications seeking permission to file evidence. Many will have no idea what a conventional court process entails and some will have difficulty in understanding its rules."
In response, a private law pathway will be published describing what the court can and cannot assist with and how it provides such assistance. That may involve restrictions on the right of one party to cross examine another, relying instead on each party having their say and the judge questioning the each party.
Mr Justice Ryder was appointed as Judge in Charge of the Modernisation of Family Justice following the final report of Sir David Norgrove's Family Justice Review in November 2011.
In his introduction Mr Justice Ryder said: "It is not the judiciary's purpose to undertake a reform programme for Government. My proposals for change are the judiciary's and are independent of Government. In coming to my conclusions, however, it has neither been possible nor sensible to ignore the Government's legislative programme and I acknowledge the cross party consensus for change in support of the Family Justice Review's conclusions. The judicial modernisation programme is a plan which is designed to ensure that there is a robust framework in place to give effect to both the judiciary's proposals and legislative change. To that end, there have been extensive and careful discussions between the judiciary and Government departments and agencies during the development of the programme which reflect the distinct roles of the Executive and the judiciary."
Commenting on the report, Law Society President Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said: "'Fast-tracking' child care cases will help identify those cases which 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."