Friday, 20 July 2012

Going on holiday this summer? You’re not the only one!

Can the PRFD really afford to take a nine week vacation?

Its one of those questions you never like to hear from a hopeful client, especially at this time of year:

How long will it take?”

Chances are that your answer today would be quite different from your answer to the same question two years, or even twelve months ago. It is no secret that the Principal Registry of the Family Division is struggling to cope with the administrative task of managing the volume of paper-work which rolls over its counters every day.  And things are only set to get worse as the government’s new legal aid policy bites.

The Courts do have some discretion (see CPR Practice Direction 39B) as to which cases they will list during the vacation and the majority of those cases will relate to children matters. The long break also means an extended wait for those needing procedural and financial hearings which can have a detrimental effect on clients who are keen to resolve matters and move on.

Why so long?

The legal year is split into four ‘terms’ or ‘sittings’ that are based around the Christian festivals of Christmas, Easter and Michaelmas (for more information visit New Square Chambers Term Date Calculator). The current sitting, known as the Trinity Term, ends on 31 July 2012, after which, only urgent cases will be listed until the legal year starts up again on 01 October 2012 .  That’s a whopping nine weeks operating on reduced judge-power!

The long break over the summer is also partly explained by the historical need not to have courts sitting during the harvest season.  Not really much mileage in that argument any more other than to note that the summer vacation does benefit practitioners and families who may want to focus on their own vacation plans without missing an important hearing date.  

Can it be justified?

There are some practical reasons not to expect judges to sit throughout the year.  The number of days each level of judge is expected to ‘deal with judicial matters’ is set out on the judiciary’s website: for a High Court judge it is 185 to 190 days in a year.  The website also explains that judges need time out of court for “reading case papers, writing judgments, and keeping up to date with new developments in the law.”  Some members of the judiciary may also be involved in collaborative law, such as arbitration, which can help to settle cases outside of Court.

We certainly don’t want a judiciary without the time to properly consider their legal duties.

I am not suggesting that the summer vacation should be scrapped altogether but can its length be justified given the current demand, delays and administrative problems?  Or should more discretion be exercised under Practice Direction 39B to allow more non-urgent cases to be dealt with during the vacation period to help with the backlog?

Comments welcome.  And don’t forget to vote!

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