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Family backlog ‘may not return to pre-Covid levels until 2023’

By Monidipa Fouzder  >>

HM Courts & Tribunals Service estimates that private law family cases may not return to pre-Covid levels for another three years, documents published by the judiciary have revealed.

The Family Justice Board issued a statement yesterday summarising priority actions to alleviate ‘immediate pressures’ and begin longer-term reform. Reports by the private and public law advisory groups, discussing the priorities, are also published.

The documents reveal that backlogs in private law have increased by 18% since before the start of the March lockdown. For those cases being heard, the average time to conclude a case is now 29 weeks. The average case time for public law cases is 10 weeks above the 26-week statutory time limit. ‘HMCTS estimate that, even with an increase in the number of sitting days, it may be another three years before the private law backlog returns to the pre-Covid-19 level,’ the private group says.

Looking at interim measures to support recovery, the group says it right to consider the viability of conducting more hearings on paper. ‘We realise that judges and other professionals in the family justice system are currently weary, having worked flat-out in strained circumstances during the pandemic, and are suffering “guidance” fatigue,’ it adds.

Pilots to test longer term reform will begin in March. The reformed private law system will include an earlier ‘gateway’ to court in which a more investigative approach is taken to understand the family situation.

The public law advisory group’s report takes the form of guidance for those involved in public law cases.

The guidance states that a significant proportion of cases are coming to court as ‘urgent’ when they do not meet the required threshold.

‘In these circumstances, the application has been unnecessarily rushed through to court, often with a request for a hearing within 24-48 hours, resulting in the application being inadequately prepared. This creates huge frustration for all parties and uses court capacity which could either be used for truly urgent cases, or indeed other cases which have been properly prepared for a productive hearing. None of this is in a child’s best interests,’ the document says.

HMCTS is told to immediately recruit additional staff and consider creating more Nightingale courts.

Sitting day limits for the fee-paid judiciary should be suspended, the report recommends. More salaried judges should work from home to free up courtrooms for fee-paid judges. More private law work should be allocated to fee-paid judges so that salaried judges can focus on public law proceedings and ensure judicial continuity.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)