Lawyers, court staff and judges are entitled to a proper one-hour lunch break, a judge has said in wellbeing guidance designed to cope with an unprecedented workload in the family justice system. The suggestion is one of 20 contained in a wellbeing protocol issued by Her Honour Judge Sybil Thomas, a senior circuit judge, for Birmingham's family court.
The protocol begins with a warning about increased workload. HHJ Thomas says: 'The impact of this workload has been magnified through the development and use of electronic communication, which tempts many into a "by return, twenty-four seven, last minute" culture of working. If we are to manage our workload effectively and continue to serve the children and families who come before the family court at Birmingham, all those working in the system must ensure that they are mindful of their own wellbeing and that we all endeavour to ensure that we comply with the suggestions made in this protocol.'
The guidance states that temptation to 'over-list' cases should be resisted. 'Where there is pressure on the list, it is the list that should give way and not the wellbeing of professionals, practitioners, court staff and judges,' HHJ Thomas says.
'Professionals, practitioners, court staff and judges have a reasonable entitlement to a lunch break. Lunch breaks should be used for lunch. The time for such a break in Birmingham must take account of the fact that most people will need to leave the court building to obtain their lunch as there is no cafe in Birmingham Civil and Family Justice Centre. Ideally the lunch break should be between 1pm and 2pm and, in any event, for an hour.'
Court hearings should begin no earlier than 10am and end by 4.30pm, with an 'absolute cut-off' at 5pm in exceptional circumstances. 'It is not unreasonable for professionals, practitioners, court staff and judges to expect to be able to return home in time to fulfill childcare or other caring commitments. No one should have to reveal details of their personal or professional commitments,' HHJ Thomas says.
On working practices, the protocol states that no one should be expected to work late into the night, for significant chunks of the weekend or while on leave. Some people may need to send emails outside of business hours due to caring responsibilities, but responses should not be expected after 6pm or before 9am.
The protocol is not the first of its kind. Similar guidance was issued by His Honour Judge Robin Tolson QC for Central Family Court in London.
Last month Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the family division, warned that family lawyers are 'running flat out up a down escalator' due to a growing backlog of cases.