The government is once again on the receiving end of a no-holds-barred speech by a judge. The outgoing president of the family division has criticised ministers for finding parliamentary time to debating how to address a bankruptcy judge but not to end the 'long-standing abuse' of alleged perpetrators of domestic violence cross-examining alleged victims.
Sir James Munby, who retires on Friday, apologised to the Family Justice Young People's Board conference in Manchester today that despite years of effort, nothing has been achieved to accommodate the needs of children who want to come to court, give evidence or meet the judge.
Munby said matters were even worse now than when he spoke at last year's conference. 'The minister has, just a few days ago, written to me to announce the government's decision that the proposals which I and others have been pressing for cannot be implemented. This is deeply depressing news. I can only apologise again for my failure to achieve for you what is, as I believe, plainly the right thing to do,' he said.
Munby said he was pleased when the government included appropriate clauses in the Prisons and Courts Bill to end the cross-examination of an alleged victim by an alleged perpetrator - a practice that continues in Crown courts. However, the bill was scrapped because of last year's general election and the relevant clauses do not appear in the Courts and Tribunals (Judiciary and Functions of Staff) Bill.
'No doubt clause 2 of this bill deals with a matter of importance to some, but whether a person hearing bankruptcy cases should be called a registrar or a judge is surely of much less pressing concern and infinitely less priority than putting an end to this long-standing abuse in the family courts,' Munby said. He asked why parliamentary time does not permit the government to bring forward the necessary bill 'when there is apparently time for parliament to debate the appropriate judicial title for a bankruptcy judge?'
He continued: 'And what, in all this time, of progress in relation to how the family justice system should meet the aspirations and accommodate the needs of children who want to come to court? Nothing, absolutely nothing, despite continuing and unrelenting pressure from both me and the Family Procedure Rules Committee.'
Earlier this month Munby received a ministerial letter containing 'a long description of how children can participate in proceedings through others, and of how their wishes and feelings can be brought to the attention of the court, but this, with all respect to the minister, is largely beside the point'. The committee drafted rules and a practice direction in relation to children. However, Munby was told that the proposals could not be implemented 'given their assessed operational impacts'.
'You may be wondering what is meant by "assessed operational impacts",' Munby said. 'In plain English, it means it would all cost too much. The minister acknowledged that this decision would be "disappointing". I would use a rather blunter word.'