The demise of family law? Courts now ‘largely inaccessible’ and ‘unintelligible’, says court president

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By Katie King on

As solicitor is lambasted for ‘extremely serious professional errors’ in complex child abuse case

Sir James Munby, the president of the Family Division of the High Court, has lambasted the family justice system, claiming its rules and procedures are “largely inaccessible” and “truth be told, unintelligible” to its litigants.

The public is today still reeling over reports that a Christian five-year-old was “forced” into Muslim foster care where she was denied bacon and encouraged to learn Arabic. The girl has now been ordered to live with her grandmother, who is reportedly a non-practising Muslim.

Now, in another family law upset, Munby has said this:

The truth is that we face a massive challenge. At present our practices and procedures are designed for — assume — a family justice system where the typical litigant has legal representation, whereas the reality is that, across vast swathes of the family justice system, the typical litigant now has no legal representation.

Continuing his foreword to a family law guidebook written by Bristol-based barrister Lucy Reed, Munby said:

The consequence is that practices, procedures and rules designed for lawyers are largely inaccessible — truth be told, unintelligible — to litigants-in-person.

The huge impact unrepresented court users has on the family justice system is becoming increasingly, and terrifyingly, apparent. Reed, a tenant at St John’s Chambers, bluntly said they clog up the courts, while the Personal Support Unit has traced a meteoric rise in clients seeking help. All the while, care cases are on the up, and a U-turn on swingeing cuts to civil legal aid (courtesy of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act) looks unlikely. What a mess.

As well, a recent judgment in a “complex and serious” care case shows a solicitor, acting for the children, has been lambasted for her conduct. The case involved allegations of sexual, physical and emotional harm. The solicitor in question, Sinead Noel, works at Clark Brookes Turner Cary and was admitted in 2006, according to her Law Society entry. A representative from Clark Brookes Turner Cary informed Legal Cheek that Noel is currently on leave.

High Court judge Mr Justice Keehan criticised Noel for her “inappropriate questioning” of one of the children. He, pretty brutally, said:

I was moved to comment during the course of Ms Noel’s evidence that by her actions during the interview with X [the child] she had run a coach and horses through 20 years plus of child abuse inquiries and of the approach to interviewing children in cases of alleged sexual abuse. I see no reason, on reflection, to withdraw those comments… I had no sense that Ms Noel had any real appreciation of what she had done or of the extremely serious professional errors she had committed. She appeared to be almost a naïve innocent who had little or no idea of what she had done.

Clark Brookes Turner Cary’s spokesperson said:

The issue is subject to further investigation which may result in disciplinary action. As such, it is inappropriate to make any further comment at this time.

Indeed, Keehan later said in his judgment that the issue of whether Noel should be referred to her disciplinary body will be determined at a separate hearing. A spokesperson for the Solicitors Regulation Authority told Legal Cheek that as and when the regulator receives a referral, it will be given due consideration.

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