Dante, in his travel guide to hell, sets out the various circles of hell and those within them. Within the ninth and final circle reside for all eternity four sorry individuals, exemplars of the worst that the world has ever had to offer (Dante’s work was written prior to certain unpleasant world leaders of the 20th century, and our current Lord Chancellor, so it may be in need of an update)
Those individuals are Cain, Athenor of Troy [betrayed his city to the Greeks], Ptolemy son of Antabus [invited people to a banquet and killed them] and finally Judas Iscariot.
We can now add to that circle of hell, a further group of terrible sinners, and one will not be surprised to learn that they are going to be local authority lawyers.
This arises from the President’s decision sitting in the High Court, in Re W (Children) 2014 [2014 EWFC 22]
The President has not yet found a power within the Family Procedure Rules to banish local authority representatives to the deepest circle of hell, but it is only a matter of time and generous interpretation. After all Rule 4.4 of the FPR 2010 sets out that the Court has powers to o)take any other step or make any other order for the purpose of managing the case and furthering the overriding objective and that pretty much seems to cover it.
And if that unbridled power is not enough, surely the inherent jurisdiction is the answer. If only I had known during my law exams that “The Court could use the Inherent Jurisdiction” is a valid answer to 90% of questions, I could have skipped all that revision.
I will come onto the offence that has provoked such ire in a moment, but the case is yet another of the ones where the Local Authority are late filing their evidence (the social worker was off sick – how dare a human being suffer from an illness that affects the Almighty Timetable) and allows the President to use his favourite word contumelious.
(I have my own suspicion that the President once put that word down in Scrabble and was robustly challenged, and since that time has been working to revive its popularity so that this will never happen again)
Of course on a 26 week window, there is not time for slippage, and of course if the Local Authority is late, that causes a knock-on for the other parties and will mean the case not being ready for IRH at week 20. And yes, over a period of time Court orders about filing have unpleasantly become vague aspirations rather than hard deadlines. I am in agreement with the President that this is a bad thing. I also agree that something must be done.
I’m not against restoring the principle that if an order says 4th March, it means on 4th March the parties have that document in their hands, not that the author of it starts thinking about writing the document on 4th March. Court deadlines need to go back to being deadlines (and not in the Douglas Adams sense “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”)
And of course, if there is slippage in the timetable, the Court must be told and be able to call the case back in. I think that the President’s idea that a Court order authorising the delay must be obtained for a 15 minute delay does not work in the real world.
A real world that has some Courts in England answering correspondence in June that was sent to them in February, that has Court staff so beleaguered and overworked that the remedy is to lock the doors of the Public Counters and not let the public in. Where sending an email to the Court service is akin to dropping a message in a bottle into the ocean – one hopes it will reach its destination but it would be unwise to put money on it. A real world where if every time a person was going to be 15 minutes late filing a document a Judge would have to consider an application and grant it and get an order typed and posted out to all of the parties. A real world where, you know, human beings get sick, and they aren’t always able to tell you the day on which they will no longer be sick and can produce their document.
In principle, one can agree that delay in filing on time is bad and the mindset needs to change. And that if there is delay, the Court must be alerted to that and given the opportunity to adjust the timetable. The President points out in Re W that there is not only no power for the parties to agree a revised timetable amongst themselves they are expressly forbidden to do so.
Indeed, such agreements are forbidden by FPR 4.5(3):
“Where a rule, practice direction or court order –
(a) requires a party to do something within a specified time; and
(b) specifies the consequence of failure to comply,
the time for doing the act in question may not be extended by agreement between the parties
In accordance with and deriving from the court’s powers under FPR 12.24, the standard form of case management order, use of which is mandatory, spells out (as did Judge Rutherford’s order in this case) the consequence of failure to comply, namely the obligation on every party to “immediately inform the Court if any party or person fails to comply with any part of this order.”
Practitioners may have found, as a result of Re W and guidance being given to CAFCASS, that there is now a semi-official policy that the parties should inform on anyone who has the temerity to be late filing a document. The reader will of course recall that one of the major planks of the Family Justice Review was that none of the professionals or agencies working in family justice trusted each other, and what could be more conducive to rebuilding that trust than encouraging the parties to inform on each other for wrong-doing?
Now, the egregious offence. The “Go to Hell” offence
Compounding its earlier defaults, Bristol City Council also failed to comply with paragraph 7.4 of PD27A:
“Unless the court has given some other direction or paragraph 7.5 applies” – this relates to hearings listed before a bench of magistrates – “only one copy of the bundle shall be lodged with the court but the party who is responsible for lodging the bundle shall bring to court at each hearing at which oral evidence may be called a copy of the bundle for use by the witnesses.”
Bristol City Council had lodged a duplicate bundle, marked ‘Witness Bundle’, and moreover in relation to a hearing where there was no suggestion that oral evidence might be called.
Yes, the President was actually annoyed that the Local Authority DX-ed a witness bundle to Court rather than the advocate carrying it to Court. That is strictly verboten and the Local Authority outraged the Court by defying the Practice Direction. And the witness bundle didn’t end up being necessary, which is a double-fault.
I am perplexed that at a time when the profession is in melt-down, when public funding has been withdrawn from the most deserving, when solicitors are being laid off due to cuts, when the public are being locked out of Public Counters, when the family justice system is under siege by the Press, that anyone could find the time to be annoyed that a superfluous witness bundle had arrived at a Court.
If you have a witness bundle that you don’t need, you can just send it back, you know? It doesn’t require a bomb-disposal unit to remove it from the premises. It is just a lever arch file.
But this is now law, and the President has said in Re W that Local Authorities who breach the law can be ‘named and shamed’ in public judgments, be ordered to pay for the costs of that naming and shaming. If you DX a witness bundle to Court rather than carrying it there, then you are technically liable for those sanctions. And if you avoid them from the trial judge, you might still get hit with them if the case is appealed (one hopes that the witness bundle irregularities in and of themselves don’t amount to an appeal, but frankly, who knows any longer?)
This is symptomatic of the problem – professionals have been drowned with rules, practice directions, guidance, case law, consultations, Views. One could spend so long establishing the exact precise procedure for doing anything that the task itself takes five times as long.
If you reach the point where you are regulating everything to microscopic level, then the sensible useful rules get lost within the morass of rules and guidance for things that never needed to be regulated. Who honestly CARES how a witness bundle gets to the Court building as long as there’s a witness bundle in the Court room if one is needed?
This seems to be a climate where if one says “red tape” the response is not “well, we need to cut that down” but rather “What, precisely, is the shade of red being used?” and “What, precisely is the width of the tape? Does it comply with Practice Direction 19B Dimensions of commonly used objects?”
By way of illustration – if you are playing Monopoly, there are a few problems with the game. It takes too long, for one thing. And for another, the last part of the game is only fun for the winner and miserable for everyone else. So, let’s appoint the President to tweak the rules to fix those problems.
Well, now we have a game of Monopoly where :-
if you’re buying Bond Street you need to submit a full-blown mortgage application with supporting documents
if you’re putting a house on Mayfair you need to seek planning permission, consult the local community and submit detailed architectural plans (making sure that you are familiar with the building regulations)
if you want to buy the Waterworks there should be a privatisation fully compliant with EU procurement rules and the opportunity for shares in the Waterworks to be offered at a preferential rate to certain key stakeholders first.
There is a prescribed period of time for shaking the dice, rules about what portion of the dice has to land on the board for it to be considered a null throw and whether it is permissible to whisper “Don’t be a six” to the dice in the pre-throw procedure.
And heaven help anyone who wins second prize at a beauty contest.
Has all of that fixed either of the problems we set out to resolve? Or has it made the game even slower and even more miserable for everyone involved?
Sadly, although we have a choice with “Monopoly President’s Edition” simply not to get it out of the cupboard and play it, we don’t have the same choice with care proceedings.