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A day in the life of a deputy district judge: a family sitting

29 January 2016

Another installment of our semi-regular series charting a typical day in the life of a deputy district judge. This week, a family sitting day.

Child cases (morning) and finances (afternoon) make up this Family sitting day. Deputies have to apply to train for a ‘ticket’ to hear private child cases, and notwithstanding my history in family law, this took me three years - acceptance for this training is said to be based on need and budget.

Family days can be depressing; a real eye-opener in terms of how families live and function after relationships break down, and tragic when one sees parents battling over their children. My previous life as a family solicitor and mediator has finally come in handy. Most of the work we do in court is civil, and if one’s background is family law, it makes for a difficult adjustment, with huge amounts of additional learning required. I have an instinct for family work by comparison - it feels vital and real, and carries huge responsibility. Equally, deputies I know with civil law backgrounds have found the transition to emotional family cases to be a massive challenge. Whilst I would ideally specialise in family work, it is not possible at this level, and the jurisdiction of a DDJ is very wide. For me, that variety is also part of the attraction.

My first case sees parents acting ‘in person’ and unable to contain their anger with each other. Increasingly, with the loss of legal aid, we see litigants in person (LiPs) who are scared, emotional and vulnerable, trying to wade their way through the family justice system with no idea of their rights, options or court procedure. It feels fundamentally wrong when what is at stake is how their children are raised. Obviously, as judges we must be sensitive to the issues and we do have a more involved role, but we cannot advise, and ultimately we still have to apply the law and make decisions in the child’s best interests. I am heartened by a case later in the day where parents, previously at loggerheads, agree contact. I congratulate them on finding a solution and for putting their child’s interests before their own. I never underestimate the value of acknowledging such efforts and how far they may go towards a new detenté and avoidance of future litigation.

An afternoon of ancillary relief follows. It is worrying to see how many people struggle on alone as LiPs or, if represented, the huge amounts families spend on legal fees. If only more couples would mediate and realise the sense in finding common ground. I urge them to do so before tensions and fees escalate further, with a warning that litigation is uncertain and the outcome cannot be guaranteed. I emphasise the value of settling without the need for an unpleasant and costly trial.

Boxwork next. I wish solicitors would explain the division in consent orders more - remember we don’t see the whole picture, particularly if proceedings haven’t been underway, so they should clarify the division in the Statement of Information, to avoid the return of papers with queries from the court.

Next week, I have an ancillary relief trial here. Luckily, the bundles are filed, so I am able to read them in advance - usually, speed-reading a bundle happens on the day of trial itself. Even if the trial settles and I am cancelled, there is always something to learn and consider from a bundle. Trials are a challenge - yes, there is the beauty of just one single case to focus on in a day, but hearing and evaluating the evidence, deciding the outcome and giving judgment - all in a limited time frame - require particular skill. If there is insufficient time to give judgment ex tempore, reserving judgment becomes necessary, although it is the exception rather than the norm. This means preparing a written judgment in one’s own time, emailing it to the court for distribution and scheduling another sitting for formal handing down of judgment. Written judgment also requires great care in setting out clearly the facts, law and evidence, the assessment of that evidence, making the decision and, crucially, the reasons for it.

As the day ends, I reflect on earlier decisions. Not a sitting goes by that I do not have at least one case on my mind, but whilst it troubles me, I remind myself that this is indicative of a conscience that (I assume!) contributed to my judicial appointment in the first place. The day I stop caring is the day I stop judging.


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