Lady Woolf rallies against family court closures in London

Family law practitioners were up in arms last week over plans to scrap family courts and concentrate proceedings in three courts in Greater London, which would lead to no hearings in South London and expose vulnerable people to greater risk.

The Law Society, the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) and the Association of Lawyers for Children (ALC) joined forces to condemn the proposals from the Greater London Magistrates’ Court Authority to concentrate all Magistrates’ Court family proceedings in Wells Street, Marylebone Road, and Waltham Forest Magistrates’ Court. Currently, some 21 court centres are used.

“We’re concerned that these plans would mean expensive, lengthy, complicated journeys for families who may be on low incomes and who are already suffering the stresses of a difficult family situation,” commented Law Society president Peter Williamson.

Earlier in the month, Lady Woolf, a magistrate for 27 years and chairman of the Richmond Family Proceedings Court, argued that the plans would put battered women and children at risk. The wife of the Lord Chief Justice, together with four other chairmen of family courts, condemned the proposals as “ill thought-out, misconceived and based on a spurious interpretation of statistics, which are themselves suspect”.

“Women with domestic violence problems or children at risk just simply may not be able to go, with possibly tragic results,” Lady Woolf told The Times.
The Law Society, the SFLA and the ALC argue that the Greater London Magistrates’ Court Authority has produced these proposals “largely to suit its own budget without fully considering the impact they would have on other bodies, such as social services departments, the Legal Services Commission and court-users themselves”.

“Families from the boroughs of Richmond upon Thames and Newham would attend court at Marylebone Road,” commented Sarah Anticoni, chair of the SFLA’s London region. “Those from Lewisham and Sutton would have to travel to Wells Street in Central London, and Camden families would have to cross North London to Waltham Forest, when Wells Street in Central London is a lot nearer for most of the borough’s residents. There will be no Magistrates’ Court south of the river hearing family cases.”