1. The main reason for sending out this newsletter is to wish everyone a very happy Christmas and New Year. This has been a very hard year for many people, both professionally and personally. But January brings about the beginning of a new year which, hopefully, will be flood-free at very least. Thank you very much for bearing with the difficulties that we have had in Bristol and for pulling together, as everyone did. For me the flood had two particular benefits. I gained a new nickname – Scuba Steve and also was forced to buy an expensive new suit – £45 from Primark with a £2 tie to go with it.
2. An indication of how hard everyone worked through the dark ages of the floods must be that our timeliness actually improved during that period. I am sure that those whose Christmas cheer lies in statistics will revel in ecstasy, knowing that public law cases took an average of 23.8 weeks here during the third quarter of the year.
3. Events – We have some fairly chunky events lined up for the New Year and I would be grateful for any support that you can give to them. They are all advertised on the family court info website. On 11th January 2018 there is an interactive theatre production at St Brendan’s College theatre, Bristol of a typical family scene leading to care proceedings in which the audience gets to discuss things directly with the actors (who stay in role); you can book to it on ticket source https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/ . On 1st February 2018 there is a conference details of which are at http://www.familycourtinfo.org.uk/news/its-your-local-family-court-what-can-we-do-better/ ; the idea of the conference is to listen to your views about what we could do better as a family court. The public and the press are invited to both events, of course.
4. Re S-F – I have been asked to include in this newsletter the following message from local authorities following the case of Re S-F: ‘The recent case of S-F (A Child) 2017 EWCA Civ 964 (12 July 2017) highlights the need for a local authority to file the Child Permanence Report (a CPR or Annex B) and the Agency Decision Makers record of decision with any application for a placement order. In his judgment Ryder J describes these as disclosable documents susceptible to cross examination. Following this the local authorities in the area are getting increasing demands for these documents to be served on the parents with the LA final evidence. However, according to the Family Practice Rules the report is a confidential document and can only be disclosed to the parties with a direction of the court (FPR Rule 14.13). Given this we need practitioners and the courts to make sure that, at any CMH/FCMH, where an application for a placement order appears likely and directions are given anticipating such an application, the court should also be asked to consider making a direction for the disclosure of the CPR/Annex B report (and the ADM minute) to the parties.’
5. Bundles – I always vowed that, if I ever became a judge, I would not start a case with what some call bundle rage. It is always unnerving for everyone when a case starts on that sort of note and, for parents who face the possible loss of their children, it must appear as though people are focussing on the wrong thing. However, I broke my vow this week and issued a judgment (X Council v A, B and C) which has been circulated. It makes no sense at all to land a bundle of over 1,000 pages on a court at 4.30 p.m. on the last working day before a final hearing for all the reasons that I give in the judgment. PD 27A is there for a reason and simply must be complied with. If you haven’t seen the judgment please get hold of a copy and read it. Every judge and magistrate I speak to tells stories of ridiculous bundles being handed in late. This really does have to stop.
6. I have been asked by Local Authorities to remind all practitioners that there has to be co-operation in agreeing what should go into a bundle. I agree that is so but it does not detract in any way from the responsibility on the Applicant, usually the Local Authority, to produce the bundle (see para 3.1 of the Practice Direction). Further it has been suggested that the court also shares a responsibility for the contents of the bundle; that is incorrect and is not what the Practice Direction says. If the court gives a specific direction about the contents of the bundle the direction must be complied with. However, the court cannot engage in discussions about the bundle’s contents outside a court hearing and should not be expected to. How can the court be expected, as a matter of generality, to direct what should or should not go into a bundle when it has not read the documents?
7. Disclosure Protocol – For the reasons that I gave in the X Council v A, B and C judgment, I am very opposed to local protocols. However, I have been asked to approve a local protocol for disclosure of Local Authority documents in private law proceedings. I have done so but do wish to stress that the protocol is over-ridden by any specific orders that are made in specific proceedings. Orders take priority over local protocols.
8. I wish you a very Happy Christmas. There is a song on Youtube about 2016 that some of you might know. 2017 has had its moments too. 2018 feels as though it’s going to be a better year.
21st December 2017.