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Munby P in bid to get more judges involved in settlement conferences pilot

President of family division renews ‘full support’ for less adversarial approach

11 July 2017

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Family judges have been given new guidance in a bid to encourage them to take part in the ongoing settlement conferences pilot.

Five areas across England and Wales, including Sussex and Cheshire and Merseyside, are already trialling the controversial form of alternative dispute resolution, which involves a judge using an inquisitorial approach to encourage cooperation between parties to resolve public and private law children cases.

The alternative dispute resolution mechanism has been dividing family practitioners. At last year’s Family Justice Council debate, nearly all delegates voted against settlement conferences in public law cases, but a similar number favoured their use in private law proceedings.

Speaking at the event, Judge Margaret de Haas QC – who is piloting the scheme in Liverpool – urged lawyers to consider the benefits of the scheme, especially how it empowered parties to reach a decision that solved a problem rather than just being imposed by the judge.

However, St Ives Chambers silk Elizabeth Isaacs QC and Martha Cover, head of Coram Chambers and co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children, warned that judges getting involved in local authority decisions risked blurring the boundaries between judicial executive powers.

Munby P, who has previously backed the process, said that despite opinions on settlement conferences being divided, the scheme is worth piloting to inform decisions on whether to take them further.

To encourage hesitant judges to join the scheme, the president of the family division, Sir James Munby, with the help of pilot judges Her Honour Judge Claire Jakens (Brighton) and Her Honour Judge Margaret De Haas QC (Liverpool), has provided several tools for judges, which outline the process and how to act.

These include: a training video outlining the settlement conferences approach in fictitious public and private law cases, accompanied with case summaries; a protocol as to basic principles; a judges’ opening for proceedings; a roll-out strategy; draft directions; and an information leaflet for parties.

The decision to provide guidance was informed by an ongoing ‘action research’ evaluation – led by the Ministry of Justice – which Munby P said will continue during the pilot to seek the views and experiences of judges and the parties to ensure the ‘settlement conference model is continually reviewed and improved’.

Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal

matthew.rogers@solicitorsjournal.co.uk | @lex_progress

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Family Children