Former Family Division president Sir James Munby has used a foray back onto the bench to launch a stinging criticism of the costs accrued and directions ignored in lengthy family court disputes.
In a ruling on whether the English court had jurisdiction to hear a Children Act application from a French mother, Munby said it was necessary to add a final comment on the sums involved in what he called ‘preliminary skirmishing’.
The former president, who retired from the post in 2018 but continues to sit on certain cases, explained that the costs incurred to date in this country by the mother and father were almost £900,000 combined for this single hearing. This included counsel costs of more than £630,000.
Munby said that despite this ‘enormous expenditure’ of lawyers’ time and effort, the trial bundle lodged failed to comply with the relevant practice directions. Underlying documents being relied upon by the mother and father during proceedings, such as text messages, tenancy documents, bank statements and party correspondence, were scattered throughout the bundle and marked with a ‘defective’ index.
The judge said that long ago as 2008 he had complained in a ruling about serious non-compliance with practice directions then in force.
‘Further comment is superfluous,’ he added. ‘I forebear from further judicial exhortation to comply with the Practice Direction. Previous experience suggests that it is merely a waste of breath.
‘It is now more than 21 years since 10 March 2000, when the then president, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, issued Practice Direction (Family Proceedings: Court Bundles). How many more years – decades – have to pass before those who ought to know better, and who, as in the present case, are being more than handsomely remunerated, comply with their obligations?’
Munby noted that jurisdictional disputes were ‘particularly arid’ and called on something to be done to prevent or reduce the ‘folly of these huge and expensive cases that litigate about where to litigate’.