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Rise in care applications could affect case duration, warns Lord Chief Justice

The surge in care applications will have a detrimental effect on case duration should the trend continue, the Lord Chief Justice has warned.

In his annual report, The Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, said that the average case duration for public law cases now stands at 27 weeks and has remained steady for the last 12 months.

The Public Law Outline introduced a statutory time limit for public law cases of 26 weeks and the Lord Chief Justice revealed that 60% of cases are now dealt with in less than 26 weeks, compared with 55.7% in the same quarter in 2015.

“This performance has been delivered against a backdrop of an increasing workload and static judicial resources,” said the report.

“The number of cases commenced between January and March 2016 was 4,833, up 24% on the same quarter in 2015. The increase in workload is a source of concern as the reasons for it are not well understood at present; if the increases continue, they will, inevitably, soon start to have an adverse impact on case duration. The President of the Family Division recently described the “clear and imminent crisis” faced,” added the report.

Given the growing caseload, there is need for “urgent action,” warned the Lord Chief Justice, adding that innovative “problem solving” models like the Family Drug and Alcohol Court, the PAUSE programme and the judiciary-led pilots of settlement conferences merit further consideration.

The judiciary is also supportive of proposals to examine the tandem model of representation in children’s cases to ensure that the most appropriate use is made of scarce Legal Aid resources in funding legal representation and the most effective use is made of Children’s Guardians, he added.

The Lord Chief Justice warned that Family Court Statistics for the second quarter of 2016 show a 16% increase in new private law cases, compared with the same quarter in 2015, to 12,203. A combination of this and the increase in public law cases, is a major concern for the judiciary.

Again, the reasons for the increase are not well understood and the majority of the private law cases that come before the Family Court now feature litigants-in-person, increasingly on both sides. As with public family law cases, measures to address the growing caseload need to be considered, the report warns.

The annual report highlights that since the 2015 Autumn Statement when the government committed more than £700 million in the modernisation of the courts and tribunals, and a further £270 million for the criminal justice system, the government and the judiciary have been working together to make reform a reality.

The reform has three main elements:

  • Digitisation and the use of state-of-the-art IT for all procedures and hearings.
  • Simplification of processes and procedures, so that there is a uniform, common procedural regime for civil, family and tribunals justice, and for crime.
  • Modernisation of the estate, so that buildings are used jointly by courts and tribunals more efficiently, are fit for purpose and support new ways of working.

“This will open up opportunities for judges to be deployed more flexibly and enable them to sit in more than one jurisdiction. One justice system and one judiciary will be achieved, which will result in the more efficient and effective administration of justice,” says the report.

The report also highlighted that during the past year, judges in Hull, Kingston and Leeds Crown Courts have continued with pilots of the pre-recording of cross-examination of children and other vulnerable witnesses. The Ministry of Justice has recently announced a wider roll-out of the pilots; plans for national implementation are being devised currently.

The Lord Chief Justice concludes that the stature of the judiciary must be maintained. Whilst modernisation of the courts and tribunals is vital and will improve the administration of justice, the judiciary itself demands attention. The report points out that there is “very real concern about recruitment”, particularly in relation to the High Court.

He also urges the role of the judiciary and the centrality of justice to society to be better recognised. “Ensuring public understanding of the justice system, and its contribution to our cohesion and prosperity as a society, is a facet of access to justice and needs to be strengthened,” the report concluded.

The Lord Chief Justice’s Report 2016

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