Did a judge say public money is being 'squandered' on lawyers?

5 September 2016

“Too much is being spent on child cases, says top family judge: Sir James Munby demands number of taxpayer-funded lawyers is cut”

Mail, 31 August 2016

“Lord Justice Munby, last week attacked the ‘squandering’ of public money on lawyers involved in cases where children are taken into care”

Telegraph, 4 September 2016

Two recent articles interpret a memo by the most senior judge in the family courts as saying that too much is spent on lawyers in cases where children are taken into care.

Sir James Munby’s ‘View From the President’s Chambers’ bulletin does warn against the “squandering” of public money, and in the next breath mentions a plan to tinker with the system that gives children involved in care cases their own legal team.

But while there may be savings to be made by reducing the involvement of these lawyers, it’s hard to conclude that Lord Justice Munby really meant that money spent on them is “squandered”. 

For a start, he emphasised that children having their own representativesas well as the legal aid that parents in this situation will always getis “as it should be”.

Lord Justice Munby did suggest that in certain stages of care cases it may be possible to do without some, or all, of a child’s legal team. However, he again stressed that “none of this can be allowed to prejudice the fundamentals” of the system.

It’s true that cost does seem to be the reason that changes are being considered. The announcement was preceded by a reminder that the system costs money, paired with a statement copied word for word from a judgment last year by the same judge:

“I end with yet another plea for restraint in the expenditure of public funds. Public funds, whether those under the control of the [Legal Aid Agency] or those under the control of other public bodies, are limited, and likely in future to reduce rather than increase. It is essential that such public funds as are available for funding litigation in the Family Court and the Family Division are carefully husbanded and properly applied. It is no good complaining that public funds are available only for X and not for Y if money available for X is being squandered.”

That judgment was about lawyers breaking court rules by submitting too much paperwork in care cases, leading to increased costs.

In the case, the lawyers for the father of one of the children asked that the Legal Aid Agency pay for the translation of 591 pages of court documents into Slovene, as their client didn’t speak English. That would have cost over £23,000.

Lord Justice Munby, on the other hand, decided that only 51 pages were necessary for the father to read in the original, along with a 30-page general summary of the case. He also complained that the page limit for all documents in a court ‘bundle’ is 350, so breaking this rule in the first place had contributed to the size of the inflated bill.

This context explains the use of the word “squandered”. 

It’s not obvious that Lord Justice Munby meant to apply the same phraseas opposed to the general sentiment that the family courts should be as efficient as possibleto the payment of lawyers for children.

As ever, the best way to make up your mind on whether the reporting was fair or “selective” is to read the original statement for yourself.

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