A visit to the Guildford County and Family Courts

On 5th May the Designated Family Judge for Surrey HH Alison Raeside hosted a lunch for the High Sheriff who between 1989-2011 had spent many weeks sitting in these courts. Some of the staff he had known over those years were still working and it was a pleasure for him to catch up with them. They described some of the changes in their working practices, including the disappearance of paper files as cyberspace is used. Judge Raeside, HHJ Lindsey George, HHJ Azmat Nisa, and DJs Triggs and Nightingale described their current work, some of the problems they faced, and how Covid had impacted upon the handling of cases. Unlike the Crown Court, which had to cope with jury trials and many more people attending court, the Civil and Family Courts had managed to avoid any major or significant disruption in the disposal of cases. In March 2020 after two weeks they were able to hold hearings almost as usual. They avoided staff working from home except where they had to isolate. However, the turnover of staff has been a problem for these courts for many years and it remains. There are staff shortages across most areas of work. The level of remuneration is said to be the problem.

As the principal theme of his year is Domestic Abuse, the High Sheriff was given an interesting update on the Family Court’s handling of such cases. More DA training takes place and new procedural rules are imminent, designed to ensure the improved handling of such cases, especially where children are involved. Most alleged victims have legal representation when they seek an injunction for their protection, as Legal Aid is usually available. Most alleged perpetrators act in person. It would be better if they also were legally represented as a lawyer’s advice could help resolve issues and make the conduct of proceedings easier for both parties. The increase in such cases since 2020 is well documented and as always, the adverse effects on children are of major concern.

Resolving the alleged perpetrator’s contact with his children, and also a person found to have been a perpetrator is often not as straightforward as may be thought or as some may wish. Arguments for and against it do sometimes raise difficult matters, with strongly held views. CAFCASS will normally report to the Court within 12 weeks, which is better than it was a few years ago.

The High Sheriff was informed that there are no longer programs for perpetrators, which is a cause of dismay. They educate and often can prevent a repeat of abusive behaviour.

In public law family cases, the lack of timely disclosure of information from the Police causes difficulty
in fact-finding cases. Mobile phone evidence is often the key to the facts but its provision takes time because of the resources it requires. Once obtained it may reveal the facts and so resolve a case very quickly.

The High Sheriff was pleased to catch up with the Surrey and Sussex Cluster Manager Dave Manning and the Operations Manager of the Guildford Courts, Richard Gregg, both of whom he worked closely with before his retirement.