UK Family Law Reform

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Family justice system is at risk, warns new chief judge

Frances Gibb, Legal Editor of The Times.

The first woman Attorney-General was enthusing in Law last week about government moves to combat domestic violence. A starkly different message comes this week from the first woman to lead the 455-judge strong Association of District Judges. Edwina Millward believes that recent reforms to curb domestic violence are having the reverse effect — and that cases coming to trial are in decline. “Fewer victims appear to be applying to the courts for non-molestation injunction orders — and more people who breach orders are escaping punishment,” she says

Last July the law changed to criminalise breaches of nonmolestation orders. Before that, a woman could complain to the police, courts issue an order with a power of arrest attached to it and if the man breached it, he could be brought to court in 24 hours and dealt with, she says.

The reform removed that power of arrest and enforcement is now in the hands of the police and Crown Prosecution Service, who — in line with the prosecutors’ code — only bring proceedings with a realistic prospect of conviction. “By its nature domestic violence happens in private and evidence of a breach is often the word of the victim against the perpetrator.” With the higher criminal standard of proof, and women reluctant to put partners on trial, anecdotal evidence suggests fewer cases are coming forward.

The issue is one chief concern as she takes over as president of the district judges who sit in the county courts — handling anything from childcare disputes and debt to accident claims and repossessions. Millward, a feisty 64-year-old, has been a full-time judge for 12 years. Before that she was a senior partner in a Maidstone law firm and is a former president of the Kent Law Society. Her husband, David Bicker, is a magistrate.

“The job has changed: we used to be registrars but when we were retitled district judges we gradually took over more and more work, with the Children Act and the Woolf reforms. And now we’re doing what the circuit judges did 15 years ago.” That work includes small claims up to £5,000, fast-track claims up to £15,000 and a proportion of the bigger claims up to £100,000.

With a special interest in family law, she has concerns about legal aid cuts and delays in children’s cases — “up to six months” in some areas. “There are more and more people acting on their own because they can’t get public funding — and in family work that can make things very difficult. People trying to sort out problems over children are not necessarily at their most rational — and also at their most vulnerable. They really need legal advice on things that can change their lives and those of their children fundamentally.” People conducting their own cases also cause delays and put pressure on scarce judicial resources so legal-aid cuts could be short-sighted, she says. “They are having a devastating effect on the way litigation is conducted.”

District judges (DJs) are the courts’ front line and so are well placed to assess the system’s failings. Millward sees a growing tolerance of violence and increasing family breakdown: she cites a survey in which 40 per cent of teenagers thought it OK to hit someone. “It’s part of a wider pattern of youth antisocial behaviour, a resort to violence as a first response. It worries me.”

Many family disputes before the DJs are over where a child will live and contact: some can be transferred to the magistrates’ family proceedings courts but that just adds to their workload, she says. One thing that would help is a unified family court — an idea she wants to resurrect. “It’s 33 years since a government report recommended it and there has been little progress. Families need speedy resolution of disputes, especially those involving children: a single family court where all levels of judges work in the same building would make best use of resources and enable cases to be transferred to the right level of tribunal.”

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