Lord Justice Gillen's Review of Civil and Family Justice

On Monday 28th November, Lord Justice Gillen spoke at NICVA on his family and civil justice review. 

Full details of the review are available here

Scotland has carried out a full civil and family justice review, England and Wales are currently reviewing civil justice and the Republic of Ireland is also conducting a review.

The Lord Chief Justice announced his review on 7 September 2015. The family justice review report was published for consultation and response and closed at the end of October. The Civil Justice Review report was published for consultation and closed on 9th December.

The aim of both reviews was to look fundamentally at the current procedures for the administration of civil and family justice with a view to:

  • Improving access to justice
  • Achieving better outcomes for court users, particularly for children and young people;
  • Creating a more responsive and proportionate system; and
  • Making better use of available resources, including through the use of new technologies and greater opportunities for digital working.

There were two groups set up to inform the review. The first was a practitioner led review group which included members of the judiciary, members of the legal professions and relevant government departments. The second was a reference group which allowed included external stakeholder groups including the consumer council, the insurance industry, NSPCC, Children’s Commissioner etc. There was also a website set up so that members of the public could contribute their views.

Lord Justice Gillen stressed that the recommendations laid out by the review were not governed by funding restrictions. The recommendations were not prioritised as it would be up to government to decide what to progress. The purpose of the review was to identify a strategic blueprint for an improved justice system and not to develop policy. However, the review did strongly recommend that the Programme for Government include a commitment to the digitalisation and modernisation of the courts process during the next Assembly mandate which would make efficiencies across the justice system. The review has taken an international focus and considered measures taken by other jurisdictions as far as New Zealand.

As most attendees were interested in the family justice review, Lord Justice Gillen focused most of the session on it. He stressed that it was a living document whilst responses to the consultation were currently being reviewed.

Some of the recommendations discussed include:

Single tier system: a creation of a single family court with the jurisdiction of the High Court preserved only for the most complex or legally sensitive cases. It was recognised that this has been done in England and Wales and has been a positive development.

One stop shop: at the early directions stage courts will be empowered to invoke relationship counselling, parent education, debt counselling, addiction/anger management support, pre-mediation support, mediation sessions, contact centre and the creation of specialist courts such as family drug and alcohol court or domestic violence court.

Court reform: A specialist in drug and alcohol courts from London is coming to Belfast in January to engage with his judicial counterparts to discuss how it can be established. It was recommended that the domestic violence court piloted in Derry should be rolled out across the region.  Lord Justice Gillen reflected on the layout of the court room, including a judge being higher than others, which impacts on the power dynamic.

Digitising the court room: the use of video links, tablets, and online communications could revolutionise the courts in Northern Ireland and prevent people from hanging around all day waiting to appear in court. This includes both attendees and social workers. Lord Justice Gillen stated that the Lord Chief Justice had recently established a twitter account for his office with a view to connecting with the public more.

Voice of children and vulnerable adults: judges and legal professionals must understand how to interact with children and vulnerable adults, be effectively trained in it and understand the importance of it. This was a key component of the family justice review. Attendees argued that those training should be from outside the Bar Council and Law Society. It was reiterated that trainers should be accredited. It was also argued that training needs of solicitors and barristers need to be reviewed regularly.

Family Justice Board: would replace the current Children’s Order Advisory Committee and would include a voluntary and community sector rep alongside legal professionals and relevant officials.

Open justice: Lord Justice Gillen stated that complex interplay between private and public law needs to find expression in transparency and accountability in both arenas. Accordingly, in the context of media access to the courts, they have recommended changes to ensure more openness and transparency whilst at the same time rigorously protecting the identity of children. The identity of children was a cause for concern among attendees present. However, Lord Justice Gillen stated that the relationship with journalists would operate on a trust basis and if those journalists breached the trust, they would not be allowed back.

Solutions outside court: a major component of the review was looking at alternatives to court. This includes family mediation for couples capable of reaching an agreement outside of family justice.

Enforcing court orders: Lord Justice Gillen stated that although a judge will do whatever is necessary to keep a parent out of prison, breaches of court orders must be addressed. Parties must not be permitted to wilfully obstruct court orders without consequences.

The final report will be published by Easter. This has been a nine month process. Some of the recommendations included in the report can be brought forward by the judiciary and the majority require changes in policy by government. 

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