The justice system may be 'under stress' but it will grind on - it is the people propping it up who will collapse, the president of the family division has warned. Addressing the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group conference in the week he was sworn in as England and Wales's most senior family judge, Sir Andrew McFarlane said the wellbeing of the profession is at the top of his agenda.
McFarlane praised legal aid practitioners, reminding them that they are the 'key' for people to access their human rights. He told attendees to 'hold your head up and not feel like you're the Cinderellas of the legal profession'. He came to the conference 'not only as a fan of legal aid but as a fan of the way it's done. Be proud of the high standards you have set'.
Legal aid work is undertaken 'for the most modest rates of pay, but that does not seem to diminish lawyers' commitment', the former Court of Appeal judge and family barrister said. He called being a legal aid lawyer a 'vocation' and said practitioners 'would work just as hard if you were paid 10 times as much', jokingly adding that he 'probably shouldn't say that' in front of staff from the Legal Aid Agency who were also at the conference.
'The judiciary as a whole greatly appreciate what you do and what you wish to do to progress the law and make it more accessible to individuals,' McFarlane said.
The family division president discussed the government's reforms to modernise the courts and tribunals system, highlighting the advantages of virtual hearings for those running a legal aid practice 'on a shoestring'. He said: 'If you do not have to get on a bus or car and have [everything] on a screen in your office, have all of the paperwork not as paper but on your screen, the potential for you to save on administration costs and travel and time to my mind is very clear.'
Acknowledging that the whole system is 'under stress', he said it was 'absolutely wrong' if that stress adversely affects practitioners' wellbeing. He told attendees to find ways to make the system more efficient and reduce their workload.
He said: 'If you can reduce the causes of stress, that will have an impact on your wellbeing. As a judge, now a senior judge, I take wellbeing of all of you very seriously. I'm not paying lip service to this. We're at a seismic moment. The system will not fall over or collapse, it will just grind on. What will happen is the people will fall over and collapse. Look after yourselves.'