Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Don't Waste My Time: There are (almost) always alternatives to going to Court

It is never pleasant when a Judge criticises you in Court, particularly in front of your client and the other side and their legal team. Even if, as a solicitor, you have the cushion of a barrister taking the brunt of the punishment it is an experience to be avoided if at all possible. It must have been an uncomfortable day in Court for those representing the parties in Re B (A Child) (Unnecessary Private Law Applications) [2020] EWFC B44.  The matter was considered by His Honour Judge Wildblood QC who was considering a appeal of a decision made by a Legal Adviser for disclosure of 5 years worth of medical records of the mother. HHJ Wildblood QC was quick to clarify that the publication of his judgment was not related to the legal issues of the appeal but rather "to highlight the extent to which court lists are being filled by interim private law hearing that should not require court involvement."

Some reminders:

  • A private law case is one which is brought by a private individual, usually a parent of the child in question, whereas a public law case is one involving a local authority, for example, an application for a care order.
  • An interim hearing is a hearing listed prior to the final hearing or conclusion of a matter, usually to address an issue that needs to be resolved before the matter can proceed, for example, disclosure of evidence (as in this case).

It is often said that going to Court is a last resort and every effort will be made to resolve matters by agreement.  That can be difficult in cases where there is high conflict or emotion and where any concession can feel like admitting defeat.  HHJ Wildblood QC, however, is making it absolutely clear that certain matters should always be resolved outside of Court and to do otherwise amounts to "an inappropriate use of limited court resources" (paragraph 3 of the judgement) which is contrary to the overriding objective set out in Rule 1 of the Family Procedure Rules 2010. The Judge helpfully gave the following examples of matters which would count as inappropriate applications:

  1. At which junction of the M4 should a child be handed over for contact?
  2. Which parent should hold the children's passport?
  3. How should contact be arranged on a Sunday afternoon?

The Judge stated that those representing parties must steer their client away from bringing such disputes to Court and said that if such matters were litigated then "criticism and sanctions" may follow.

It is clear that everything must be done to try and keep such disputes out of Court including making the consequences of taking the matter before a judge clear to the parties. But what about those cases where even the smallest of issues is impossible to resolve without a third party stepping in to assist? Well there are alternatives and it is important to consider them particularly in light of this recent judicial warning. If negotiations are not working then mediation can be a helpful tool and HHJ Wildblood QC references this towards the end of his judgment. But mediation is not always appropriate particular if there have been allegations of domestic abuse. Another option is arbitration. 

Arbitration involves a third party selected by the parties (usually a practising barrister or judge) who will consider the issues and make a binding decision. Arbitration can be used to resolve all matters in dispute it should not be forgotten that smaller issues, such as those complained of by HHJ Wildblood QC can also be resolved through arbitration. The parties are in control of the process and it may even be possible to have the matter resolved without the need to attend a hearing. Whilst the parties will have to meet the cost of the arbitrator, considering the possible costs of a court hearing (in Re B the costs ran to thousands of pounds) it could be a more cost effective process and will certainly be a quicker way of reaching an outcome which would allow the matter to proceed and avoid taking up precious Court resources.

It would therefore be prudent to keep Re B in mind when considering whether to take an interim matter to court in private law proceedings as, not only are you likely to be criticised by the judge, but there could be a lot more lost than simply your client's preferred junction of the M4 for handovers.

What are your thoughts?