Family solicitors and courts may have to 'cut corners' and exceed time limits to prevent burnout from dealing with 'sustained, remorseless and relentless' pressure, the most senior family judge in England and Wales has warned.
In his first View from the President's Chambers since taking over from Sir James Munby as family division president, Sir Andrew McFarlane repeated his concern for the wellbeing of social workers, lawyers, judges and court staff, dealing with the adverse impact of an increased workload, 'who are conscientiously continuing to deliver'.
He said: 'Other than doing what I can to understand and address the underlying causes (which will obviously take time), there is little that I, as president, can do to relieve the current pressure... In these highly pressurised times, I think that it is neither necessary nor healthy for the courts and the professionals to attempt to undertake "business as usual". For the time being, some corners may have to be cut and sometimes time limits exceeded; to attempt to do otherwise in a situation where the pressure is sustained, remorseless and relentless, is to risk the burnout of key and valued individuals in a system which is already sparsely manned in terms of lawyers, court staff and judges.'
Latest government statistics show that the average time to conclude care proceedings is 30 weeks - above the 26-week limit introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014. Just before he took up his post, McFarlane said his predecessor was ‘plainly right to blow the whistle when he did’ in 2016 over the significant rise in the number of care applications being received by the courts, which was 'by no means abating'.
McFarlane encouraged the profession and district family judges to discuss the parameters of sensible and acceptable working practices during the next six months. He suggested they discuss the earliest and latest times of the day when the court can reasonably be expected to sit, and the earliest and latest times of the day to email a lawyer or court.
He said: 'As family lawyers and judges it is, for me, a total "given" that you will go the extra mile for the sake of the child, the parties and the system when this is needed. You will, I am sure, continue to do so. My present purpose is to acknowledge publicly that we are currently in a situation that cannot be accommodated simply by working beyond what can reasonably be expected every now and again.'
Last year McFarlane warned legal aid practitioners that even though the justice system may be 'under stress', it would grind on - it is the people propping it up who would collapse.