It may well be spring of 2021 before the Family Court in England & Wales returns to anything like normal working in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the President of the Family Division predicted today.
In a paper titled "The Family Court and COVID-19: The Road Ahead", Sir Andrew McFarlane sets out what will be needed for the court to operate in the coming months as it grapples with a backlog of cases that was already building before the virus struck.
"It now seems sensible to assume that social distancing restrictions will remain in place for many months and that it is unlikely that anything approaching a return to the normal court working environment will be achieved before the end of 2020 or even the spring of 2021", he states.
"The reality to be faced is that the Family Court must now, for a sustained period, seek to achieve the fair, just and timely determination of a high volume of cases with radically reduced resources in sub-optimal court settings."
In order to secure children's welfare, "nettles will need to be grasped", and continued communication and co-operation will be needed among all those who have worked to achieve new ways of working over the past 10 weeks.
I have heard it said more than once that 'with COVID all thoughts of wellbeing have gone out of the window'. To my mind, whilst such a statement may well have been apt during the early period, it could not be more wrong now that we are engaged on the long haul back to normality. In the present circumstances there is an enhanced need to consider wellbeing."
If the court is to have any chance of dealing with the needs of children or adults seeking protection from abuse, or their families, in a timely manner, "Clear, focused and very robust management of cases will be vital in the coming months. The case management judge will have the difficult role of balancing the welfare of the child, the need for a fair and just process and the limited resources of space, time and format with the need to conclude the proceedings."
Concluding, Sir Andrew states that he has been "profoundly impressed" by the efforts made in the past 10 weeks, and the "can do" approach shown. He ends: "The song 'He Ain’t Heavy', which starts with the words 'The road is long', includes the phrase 'We’ll get there'. If, in the context of family justice, 'there' means a return to more ordinary working, I am sure that we will get there – even though the road will undoubtedly be long."