Judges hearing cases online warned against extending working day too far

A judicial head has warned family court judges overseeing cases online during the coronavirus crisis to guard against extending their working days too far.

Sir Andrew McFarlane, who is president of the Family Division of the High Court – and the most senior family court judge in England and Wales, said more hearings could be conducted via computer because judges and staff did not have to travel.

But he said on Friday, in guidance issued to judges, that a backlog of cases would not be cleared by people working “beyond reasonable capacity”.

The High Court
The High Court

“The degree to which work, including court hearings and the transmission of emails, now takes place without any regard to the confines of a normal working day has become a matter of very significant concern in the context of our individual and collective wellbeing,” said Sir Andrew.

“Prior to the advent of remote working, it was simply not possible to hold a court hearing before 9am because the court buildings were not open.

“Neither was it possible to appear in one court for a case management hearing, before starting a full hearing in another court many miles away 45 minutes later.

“Now it is possible to achieve these and many similar additions to the working day via a computer; but just because we can, does not mean that it is right to do so.”

He added: “The pressure of work in the courts, and the backlog of cases, are matters that concern the system as a whole.

“They will not be resolved by individuals working beyond reasonable capacity, but by increased resources and strategic, system-wide changes in the way cases are dealt with.”

Sir Andrew said since March, the “resources” available, in terms of equipment, staff numbers and judge sitting days, had increased.