UK Family Law Reform

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From start to finish — one case, one judge.

The new president of the Association of District Judges has clear ideas about what he wants to achieve.

Frances Gibb 17th April 2007

If there’s a theme to his coming year in office it has to be judge power. District Judge Michael Tennant favours judges having powers to enforce orders for contact with children when flouted by parents; he favours judges being in charge of a case from start to finish; and above all he would like more resources for the courts — although that one, he accepts, is likely to remain on his wish list.

Judge Tennant has just taken over as president of the 450-strong Association of District Judges. District judges handle the vast bulk of family and civil cases but they have a low profile. Judge Tennant sees his year as a chance to raise it — while demystifying and simplifying the work of county courts.

Top of their concerns is the lack of resources — a concern common, he says, to all the judiciary. “I acknowledge we are in a demand-led environment, so there are always going to be strains generated by that, but government policy is for the civil courts to be self-financing and that inevitably causes significant pressure on resources.”

He rejects the notion that the system is close to collapse — at any rate from Hampshire, where he sits. But courts are struggling to “do the best they can” with available funds. The Lord Chancellor has a duty, he notes, to ensure resources sufficient for the running of the courts. “It will be interesting to see, with a ministry of justice, how that duty is going to be discharged. The judiciary as a whole would be very concerned if there was any suggestion of resources being diverted from the courts to ply new responsibilities under the MoJ.”

District judges’ caseloads range from 15-minute applications (by telephone) to hearings of up to two hours or trials of two or three days. But cases are getting longer. “People seem to be more aware of the possibility of bringing claims . . . they feel that where they have a grievance, there should be a remedy, and there may not be.”

Reforms that make it easier for people to claim mean that people more readily bring cases — often without legal advice, he adds. But the rise in litigants in person adds to the overall costs. And they are less likely to settle. “Lawyers will try to negotiate. But often people bringing their own claims are reluctant to settle, because they see that as giving in or being bullied... when it’s just that it may make sense to negotiate an agreement.”

This readiness to claim has fuelled the myth of the compensation culture. “I don’t think it actually exists... it’s a perception that people are more willing to bring a claim than they were and some hopeless claims acquire notoriety in the press. But they are few and far between — most fail spectacularly — judges are quite robust.”

Judge Tennant, 64, sits for three days in Southampton and two days in the Isle of Wight — when not indulging his passions of sailing (he races) and piano playing. He also sits as a crown and county court recorder. His legal career began as a solicitor: he qualified in 1966, joined a family practice in Cowes and specialised in civil and family litigation and criminal advocacy until becoming a judge 22 years ago.

With that background he knows the problems in family hearings. Tens of thousands of disputes involving children come before the county courts each year — many involving breaches of contact orders. District judges are therefore in the firing line of angry parents who want to see orders enforced. But at present the judge who imposes the order has no power to enforce it and instead sends the case off to a circuit judge. “It would go some way to improving things if district judges had the jurisdiction to deal directly with this, with the sanction of imprisonment... not because we like sending people to prison but because the focus is to get someone to obey the order and it’s right we should have the power to do this.”

But, in line with other judges, he seems less certain that the family courts should be opened to the media. “Public confidence is important and we haven’t got the balance right yet. It is absolutely essential,” he says, “that there is sufficient transparency to reduce, so far as possible, miscarriages of justice. A second priority is to protect the identity of individuals: it is a very difficult balance to strike. But what is important is consistency of approach.”

Children’s cases benefit from one reform, however: judicial continuity, with one judge in charge from start to finish. That should be extended to all cases, Judge Tennant argues, to cut the delay and wasted expense of “successive judges reading the same material and then taking a different, albeit individually valid, view of the litigation. The landscape has changed since the civil justice reforms were introduced and the argument for allocating cases to a particular judge to be managed throughout is much stronger.”

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