Family Court Closures

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Doubtlessly we will remember the summer of 2010 for a number of reasons; England’s dismal defeat at the hands of Germany in the World Cup, the manhunt for Raoul Moat in Northumbria that spanned 6 days and the public outrage caused by the new Coalition Government’s public spending cuts.

The announcement of a consultation into the closure of 157 regional courts in England and Wales was one of the more unexpected initiatives. Access to justice is one of the stalwarts of the UK justice system but if this cost cutting spree goes ahead, local communities will surely feel the brunt.

While the closure of some regional courts is bound to be felt by businesses and other organisations involved in civil disputes, it is local families who will be hit hardest.

In Yorkshire, magistrates’ courts facing closure include Goole, Selby, Skipton, Keighley, Pontefract and Batley and Dewsbury whilst Goole, Skipton, Barnsley, Pontefract, Keighley and Dewsbury county courts have been identified as under threat. The Government argues that the move could save £15 million in running costs – but is there a price for justice?

In my work as a family lawyer in Leeds, I advise families in disputes which often go on for weeks and even months. It is a difficult time for everyone involved and often the outcome will shape their future. These families are under a lot of strain already and having to travel long distances to and from the nearest country court could add further stress to an already extremely difficult situation – not to mention further costs.

As anyone who has experience of the family justice system will know, these regional courts are already vastly oversubscribed and struggle to cope with a constant influx of cases. The result is that dates are frequently put back several months – even in cases that involve the future care of children. Currently, family court matters are often allocated to the local county courts to be heard on one day a week. If these cases were crammed into just on regional facility I fear chaos and further delays would be inevitable.

The Government’s response to these concerns is that funds would be invested to encourage greater use of technology in the UK legal system. ‘Virtual’ courts would be created which, in theory, would mean the parties involved wouldn’t need to physically attend hearings. But I am left underwhelmed and unconvinced that these adaptations will be adequate and indeed appropriate given the subject matter. When vulnerable and young children are required to testify a video link to the county court can be a useful tool. However, in the vast majority of cases, face to face contact is by far a more sensitive and appropriate approach.

These cutbacks come at a time when the whole family justice system is undergoing a comprehensive review by the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry of Justice’s spending review is looking at how cases involving children are managed with a view to promoting greater use of alternatives to court such as mediation. This is of course laudable and mediation is already the first port of call in all cases brought with Legal Aid funding; nonetheless many of these cases still end up proceeding to court. Mediation can only go so far and in family cases an experienced judge is essential in deciding on the complex and sensitive matters.

I appreciate that cuts have to be made in reducing the UK’s financial deficit and many professions will be arguing their case at this stage. But I feel very strongly that the family justice system is not the place to do it. This niche area of law can have a life-changing impact on entire families – generations even – and it is vital that we pay it the attention it deserves.

Mediation and other alternative methods of dispute resolution are certainly worthwhile and I hope that they will continue as a key feature of the UK legal system. However, family matters are in many ways unique and require an extremely sensitive approach. The family justice system exists to provide advice, support and guidance when family disagreements cannot be solved within the comfort of the home. The regional county courts have a vital role to play and I very much hope that the Government will take note and think carefully before wielding the axe. After all, it was David Cameron who pledged to fix 'broken Britain'.

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