HHJ Stephen Wildblood QC is clearly a man of parts. In a 2017 Buzzfeed interview, the senior family court judge for the south-west admitted that the cases he presides over can move him to tears. More recently, he distilled some of those cases into an interactive drama that shines a light on the workings of the family justice system. His collaborative theatre production – Who Cares? – highlighted the need for early help and lack of aftercare for parents who lose their children to care proceedings.
This judge certainly cares – which makes last week’s cri de coeur to family lawyers more than usually compelling. In a highly unusual diversion, he fulminated at some length about the extent to which court lists are being filled by private law litigation that should not require court involvement.
Requests for ‘micro-management’ that have arisen before him in recent weeks include: at which junction of the M4 should a child be handed over for contact? (!); which parent should hold the children’s passports, in a case where there was no suggestion that either parent would detain the children outside jurisdiction; and how should contact be arranged on a Sunday afternoon?
This is an uncomfortable message for solicitors and barristers, in that it departs from the comforting narrative that the predicament of our swamped courts is wholly attributable to a lack of investment.
So what does family lawyers’ body Resolution make of his intervention? Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution’s family law reform group, naturally alluded to the pressure on the family courts caused by the withdrawal of legal aid, increase in litigants in person, court closures and the Covid-19 pandemic. But does HHJ Wildblood have a point, nevertheless?
Perhaps, I am inclined to infer.
She told me: ‘There is a broader issue at play here which is that the courts are simply not getting the resources they require in order to function effectively. We urge the government to look at what additional resources can be deployed that would divert suitable cases away from courts and into alternative arrangements including collaborative law, arbitration as well as mediation, while ensuring that those cases that need court time are given it promptly.’