Widespread reports of family hearings starting as early as 8am or as late as 4.30pm have compelled the president of the Family Division to remind judges and practitioners that the family court should nearly always be sitting between 10am and 4.30pm.
Updating his ‘The Road Ahead’ framework in the light of the latest lockdown, Sir Andrew McFarlane said the courts’ longstanding practice of not starting to hear cases before 10am and not sitting after 4.30pm arose from the need for judges and staff to prepare for listed hearings and undertake administrative tasks that have accumulated by the end of the day.
He said: ‘In my experience most family judges are at their desks well before 9am and continue working in the late afternoon and evening. For the professionals, the time before and after court is spent in preparation, drafting and discussion/negotiation.
‘Widespread reports suggest that this time, on the margins of the day, is now regularly being taken up by additional hearings – some starting as early as 8am or commencing at 4.30pm. Having discussed this issue with the family division liaison judges and others, I am clear that this development, laudable though the reasons behind it plainly are, is not tenable in terms of the human resources and well-being of all concerned.
‘It is, therefore, necessary for me to state that the normal sitting hours of the family court are between 10am and 4.30pm, with an adequate adjournment at lunchtime. Whilst a judge may decide that additional hearing time will be allocated outside these parameters, this should be seen as an exceptional occurrence, and not the norm, and should be limited to no more than a 30-minute extension to the court day. Cases which are genuinely urgent will, as they have always been, be allocated any necessary hearing time.’
McFarlane asked judges to question professionals who are emailing ‘outside acceptable hours’. He said ‘there should be no expectation that email traffic will be read and responded to in the evening, overnight or at weekends’.
McFarlane said mass vaccination against Covid-19 was a ‘most welcome light at the end of the tunnel’ but warned that the family court faces another six months of remote and hybrid hearings ‘before, we hope, getting back to normality’.