District Judge (Chester Civil Justice Centre)
Normally I would be doing box work from 8.30am, which consists of a wide range of matters, such as possession orders, pre-trial checklists, setting cases down for trial, transfers of cases from other courts and injunctions being sought.
Today is what I call a 'child day' and I have a busy list of mainly family cases. However, the first case is a housing matter where the tenants are heavily in arrears to the council. The tenant is represented by a debt relief officer for the council, who says the tenant has lost sight of her payments because her husband and child are sick. The debt relief officer is now providing assistance to the tenant, for example by helping her make benefit claims. A lump sum payment is offered by the tenant, followed by small instalments per week to pay off the rest of the debt. The other party - also the council but a different department - strongly opposes this because previous payment promises have been made but not kept. I clarify that the real reason why the tenant has not paid is because she has not had the money - her only income is Jobseeker's Allowance payments of just over £20 per week. The tenant admits this and I decide to adjourn for one month to allow her to show goodwill, on the terms that a £500 lump sum is paid in one week, she pays the rent and £3.40 of arrears per week. However, I warn that the arrears are among the highest in the area and there are 1500 other people who would like to rent somewhere through the council. Therefore, if the tenant does not comply with the conditions, the warrant of possession will be executed. This is a very typical case.and you have to balance the needs of the tenants against the need for housing in the area.
Next, the child work begins and first up is a contact case. The father has brought an application, but the mother claims it is just a device to try to re-start the relationship. The father has asked for residence and contact, which is common, and a report has been requested from the Children and Families Court Advisory Support Service (CAFCASS), which involves going through a checklist under the Children Act. Today is listed as a directions hearing. The father has emailed ahead to say he is too ill to attend and requested an adjournment. There is no medical certificate and I am prepared to make decisions today to progress the matter. Counsel for the mother says they were hoping the application would be dismissed. I explain this cannot be done without notice and suggest it would be sensible to set a trial date. If the father does not turn up the court can make an order in his absence.
The third case is also about contact and the mother and father have suddenly started talking about genuine contact, including Christmas and New Year, and a consent order has been drafted. This will negate the need for the court to make an order under the Children Act. I get the parties in and congratulate them on the progress they have made and for showing such a mature attitude. The order is made an order of the court and I explain that both parties and their lawyers will get a copy.
In a similar case, the parties are making no progress. It involves children who currently live with their mother and their father has contact alternate weekends and midweek. He now wants increased contact during holidays and at Christmas and the parties cannot agree on the latter. A CAFCASS report is needed because the children allegedly do not want to spend a week at a time with their father. I direct that the case is to return in 16 weeks following receipt of the report.
There is a slightly unusual application listed where I am being asked by a mother to reconsider an order of discharge of a periodical payments order for a child . The Child Support Agency (CSA) requested the original order be discharged so they could use their powers when the father decided he would like to make maintenance payments through them, which I allowed. The mother has subsequently received two payments and both less than the sum in the original order. No representations have been made by the CSA or the father and no parties have attended today's hearing, therefore the application cannot be progressed.
I start re-reading a very large file on a case where a father has alleged a mother hit their daughter and there is an ongoing inquiry into this. The Social Services' 'child in need' programme has been started, but the father has not engaged in the process because he thinks it is unworkable. The daughter wants to live with her father. There is also a son who is younger and enjoys contact with both parents. Today, we need to set a process for the future or send the case for trial. The case is delayed as counsel are in conference and the children's guardian needs to contact the local authority. A couple hours later insufficient progress has been made and I suggest we will have to move towards directions for a trial. The parents will each file their position statements within 14 days, the guardian by seven days later and the case will be listed for an interim hearing to discuss contact at the first date after 21 days.
However, progress has been made by the parties to another case about interim care for a child while a residence application is finalised. The child has been injured while living with her mother and the father was going to provide the interim care until the police finish their enquiries. However, the father has just started a new job which involves him working overnight. When I call the case, the parties need more time to talk. Later an order is drafted for a grandfather to provide the interim care.
An urgent family case file arrives. A couple separated two years ago when the mother started a new relationship, but that romance is also now over and the mother and child are living in a refuge. The mother and father are both deaf and vulnerable, the child is aged only three. The application is to remove the child from the mother because she has had a series of abusive relationships. I direct the case is sent to the Magistrate's Court because they have better facilities to cater for the parties' disabilities.
My day finished with more box work before heading home to cook dinner for my wife.
Charles Newman is a former JAC Commissioner and solicitor.