We live in challenging times. The family justice system is undergoing the most radical reforms in a lifetime. The process of reform is little short of revolutionary. These reforms, in which we must all play our part, are divided into three parts.
First, there is the creation of the new single Family Court which, once the Crime and Courts Bill completes its progress through Parliament, is likely to come into existence in April 2014. It is some forty years since such a court was recommended by Sir Morris Finer and he, alas, did not live to see his recommendations bear fruit – such is the snail-like pace of so much legal reform in this country. When it opens its doors, the Family Court will include, wherever possible sitting under the same roof, judges from every tier of the judiciary: High Courts Judges, Circuit Judges, District Judges and Magistrates. And it will benefit from unified systems of administration and listing. I need not go into further details here; they can be found in ‘The Single Family Court: A Joint Statement by the President of the Family Division and the HMCTS Family Business Authority’ issued in April 2013.
Here I should like only to emphasise two very important points. The first is the significance of the Magistracy. I do no accept, I have never accepted, that Magistrates are unsuited for family work or, in particular, for public law cases. Quite the contrary. So Magistrates will play a vitally important part as judges in the Family Court. And I must make clear that there is no agenda that Magistrates should in future concentrate only on private law cases. Given the great discrepancies at present in the balance of public and private law work being done by different Family Proceedings Courts, there is likely over time to be a rebalancing in some places between the two kinds of cases. But Magistrates are going to continue doing significant amounts of public law work. The second point relates to their legal advisers (justices’ clerks). They will have a pivotal role to play as members of the ‘gate-keeping and allocation team’ in the Family Court.
The second strand in the reform process is the product of the work done for the Family Justice Review by David Norgrove, ably assisted by McFarlane LJ. It has been carried forward as to part in the Children and Families Bill recently introduced into Parliament, as to part by Norgrove himself, who chairs the Family Justice Board, and as to part, until his very recent promotion to the Court of Appeal, under the supervision of Ryder J as Judge in Charge of Modernisation. We all owe an immense debt to Ryder LJ. Without him I simply do not know where we would be. This part of the reform process is the focus of what follows.
The third strand has to do with transparency. I am determined to take steps to improve access to and reporting of family proceedings. I am determined that the new Family
Court should not be saddled, as the family courts are at present, with the charge that we are a system of secret and unaccountable justice. Work, commenced by my predecessor, is well underway. I hope to be in a position to make important announcements in the near future.