HHJ Stephen Wildblood QC, Designated Family Judge for Avon, North Somerset and GloucestershireClaire Wills Goldingham QC, Albion Chambers, Bristol
Judi Evans, St Johns Chambers, BristolThe below article has been taken from the November 2014 issue of Family Law and made available ahead of print.
We are writing this article to explain a process involving fourpoints that we have put into effect in the ‘DFJ area’ of Avon, North Somerset and Gloucestershire. Those four pointsare:
- support forlitigants in person;
- support for parentsand families outside and during litigation;
- disseminatinginformation about the above; and
- supporting andreinforcing the roles of family lawyers.
In developing that process, the three authors of this articlehave worked with many people. We are deeply indebted and, at times, have beentruly humbled by what we have discovered to be available to those in need ofhelp and support.
Following the announcement in April 2013 of theimplementation of the modernisation programme, people in this area have workedvery hard to achieve improvements in our public law work. I, Stephen Wildblood,became the Designated Family Judge in this area in that same month. I saidthen, as I do now, that we can only achieve what we need to achieve if weobserve four alliterative concepts – good communication, effectivecollaboration (ie team work), a change in culture and, finally, a commitment tothe people who really matter – the public who are forced into our systems for aresolution of family and personal issues where consensus (assisted orotherwise) fails. Thankfully, and as a result of a collaborative exercise, wehave now reduced our delays considerably so that the average public law casetakes about 25 weeks here.
That feels very much like ‘phase one’. While all that has beengoing on some very strong statistical information has been produced about whatis happening in private law proceedings. Private law proceedings cannot beviewed as the ‘poor relation’ of the system. Children caught in the midst ofparental conflict in private law proceedings can be every bit as vulnerable asthose involved in public law proceedings. We are very conscious that we meetand assist people at times of great stress and distress in their lives andwhere, in some cases, the court is being asked to make the most life-changingorder possible – that of adoption.
The number of private law applications that are now being made isdown by something like 36% since the legal aid changes in April 2013; itmay be informative to bear in mind that, in the Employment tribunals,applications are said to be down by about 80%, with obvious knock-on effects.Most litigants in private law proceedings appear without legal representation(57% in December 2013 and now said to be around the 70% mark). The Law Society Gazette
contains an articlepublished on 24 September 2014 which suggests that ‘nearly three-quarters ofprivate family cases involve one or both parties without legal representation’.The figure of 70% emanates from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner whichhas recently published a report Legal Aid Changes Since April 2013: Child Rights Impact Assessment
.As a result, the Minister for Justice, Simon Hughes, is reported as saying: ‘Ihave asked the Ministry of Justice to review the findings in this report. Wehave had to make difficult decisions to protect legal aid for the long term butthis shouldn’t be at the expense of the rights of children’. In the Bristolarea the figures are these:
- Private lawreceipts per child for Bristol DFJ area July 2014 – 209. Private lawreceipts per child for Bristol DFJ area July 2013 – 285 [ie a reduction of74];
- Private lawreceipts per child for Bristol DFJ area April 2014 – 225. Private lawreceipts per child for Bristol DFJ area April 2013 – 320 [ie a reductionof 95].
Combine the 2 months and the total reduction over 2 monthsis 164 less applicants. It may also be worth citing the figures that come fromthe Administrative Office of the Courts of California (see E Walsh,‘Self-help for LiPs’ in September  Fam Law 1345) which are said to be:
- 70% of divorcecases involve at least one person without an attorney at the beginning of acase – 80% by the end of a case;
- 90% of domesticviolence cases involve no attorneys;
- 90% of tenants ineviction cases do not have attorneys – nor 30% of landlords.
It is right to observe that, recently, there appears to be an increasein the take up of mediation. The ChiefExecutive of National Family Mediation, Jane Robey, has spoken of a 30%–40% increase
in some areas. But that cannot, of itself, account for the downturn inapplications during the period of which we are speaking.
We have been determined to do as much as we can to help thoseinvolved in family disputes and, in particular, those involved in familylitigation (some of whom may receive about 140 pages of documentation whenconsidering a private law application). We think that the time to take these steps is now (the changes havingcome into force 18 months ago) whatever may happen in the future aboutlegal aid. We give the following examples of the sort of the people that wehave particularly in mind:
- a mother with an IQof 85;
- a father whosefirst language is not English;
- a subordinated wifeleaving a non violent but dominated relationship; and
- a distressedgrandparent who wishes to intervene in care proceedings.
The purpose of this article is not to make any sort of politicalstatement. We are simply not qualified to make any remarks about whether thelegal aid budget should be increased or decreased. The legal aid budget in thiscountry is huge (apparently somewhere between £1.5 and £2 billion). Thepurpose of this article is not to discuss how that money, or any variations init, should be spent. Instead our aim is two-fold. First, to ensure that thereis an optimal, accessible and sustainable system of family justice in our areaand, secondly, to achieve, if we can, the respect of those with whom we work.The role of Designated Family Judge (DFJ) does not involve telling anyone whatthey must do (except in the limited confines of court work and subject always to the direction of higher courts, moresenior judges, statutes and any appeal). But it does create a leadership rolewith a responsibility to maintain and improve the family justice system in thisarea through discussion and example.
The four points that we mention at the outset of this articlehave taken us to more meetings over a short period than any of us can everremember encountering before. We have met some of the most outstanding,rewarding and considerate people.
Support for litigants in person
The work of six voluntary agencies has been co-ordinated. We will describe them now in turn. They will each give a short presentation at a conference that we organised on 23 September 2014.
The Law Centre in Bristol – A family solicitor, Jay Oberoi and others, work as part of a voluntary solicitor scheme on Tuesday evenings giving free legal advice on family matters. That work is extremely valuable and is to be promoted as part of the scheme that we are putting in operation.
The Citizens Advice Bureau – In a succession of very helpful meetings with the director of the CAB here (Sue Evans) we have forged links between the family court and that organisation by which there can be an established route for litigants in person (or would-be LiPs) to obtain outline advice about their legal rights and some help with forms and procedures. The CAB is very skilled in this type of work and is well used to signposting people to other sources of help. It also has a strong publicity machine which it offers to publicise the initiatives that we have put in place (including offering a ‘pop up’ shop facility in premises on Park Street, Bristol on a day in October when members of the public were able to call in to hear what we do).
The Personal Support Unit – This is a national charity of which the Lord Chief Justice and others are patrons. Paul Bryson is the manager of the unit in the Bristol Civil and Family Justice Centre. The unit has an office here in the court building and sees about 200 members of the public each month. The unit has about 25 volunteers. They provide personal support to litigants in person, help them find their way around the court building, sit with them sometimes in court and help them fill out forms (by sorting out what forms they need and then acting as scribe to them). We see their volunteers in and about the court and have very clear evidence of the invaluable service that they provide.
The multi faith support group – Sarah Pullin, who is a solicitor but not a family lawyer and who has a humbling dedication to the task, has set this up. It is genuinely ‘multi faith’ and draws from a very wide range of faiths and cultures from around this area. It is operated entirely by volunteers who attend the court building to give personal, emotional and faith / culture based support to those who seek it. They are now present at court on each weekday and see about 45 people a week (nine a day). There is a quiet room on the third floor of the court where those who wish to do so can practise their religion, pray or just sit quietly.
The UWE graduate representation scheme (‘CLARS’) – This is managed by Ian Thompson of UWE Bristol Law School and, under the scheme, post-graduate vocational law students provide legal assistance and representation before the family courts. It does not pretend to provide a substitute for legal advice or representation by fully qualified lawyers and cannot conduct litigation itself but does provide a very valuable service assisting the Personal Support Unit and other charities, as well as helping litigants arriving at court without representation.
The Samaritans – Maggie, the future director of Samaritans in Bristol, has attended many conferences here to explain the very necessary work that Samaritans do. She and Martyn (the present director) have trained some judges and court staff in how to identify and assist people who may have fallen into despair or distress when overwhelmed with the fear of losing children, homes, relationships, etc. They offer themselves as providing very necessary emotional support for litigants and others. It is impossible to give figures for how much this now established link has been used. We suspect that it is used heavily.