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Developing International Family Justice: The role of the legal secretary to Lord Justice Thorpe

Delia Williams, legal secretary to Lord Justice Thorpe, provides an insight into their work developing co-operation in international family law

image of delia williams, legal secretary to lord justice thorpe

Delia Williams, Royal Courts of Justice

Lord Justice Thorpe was appointed Head of International Family Justice for England and Wales in 2005, to deal with the steady and continuing growth of international family litigation and its consequent demands. My position was created to support and assist him in this capacity. The title of 'legal secretary' can mean many things. In this instance, my three principle responsibilities are to:

In order to better illustrate these headings, the following are examples of situations that I have encountered and dealt with, since kick-off in September 2007:

• As an adjunct to the European Judicial Network (EJN) for Civil and Commercial judicial collaboration, the office has pursued the creation of an EJN for judges who specialise in family law. We have so far persuaded 22 of the Member States to designate these specialist judges and we chase constantly for the remainder to follow suit. Judicial collaboration within family law is of paramount importance. During my short tenure we have secured appointments of specialist family judges in Lithuania, Bulgaria and Slovenia. We will be meeting with a few of these specialist judges during the EJN meeting in Brussels in January to discuss ways in which to strengthen the network. Individual Hague Convention matters have resulted in exchanges with Spain, France, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands.

• Our little black book is not limited to European specialist family judges. I was recently able to help the President of the Family Division with an urgent Hague Convention matter concerning the return of two children to Alberta, Canada. Thanks to Lord Justice Thorpe's hard-won judicial contacts, I was able to get through to a Hague Liaison Judge for the common law Canadian provinces, who then put me in touch with the judge designated as the contact in Alberta for Hague Convention matters. We have also been able to assist with cases concerning Convention matters in the US and Peru.

• This office also deals with cases relating to the UK- Pakistan Protocol on Child Abduction. These cases crop up, on average, about once a week. The work involves exercising our alliance with the Child Abduction Section of the Foreign and Commonwealth Offices as well as solicitor's firms in the UK and Pakistan, and requires effective communication with, and assistance from, the contact Liaison Judge for Pakistan. I am very pleased to be of assistance in these cases. It is especially encouraging to note that we have been able to help resolve some recent cases despite political turmoil.

• Since I am employed under the umbrella of the Judicial Office in the Ministry of Justice, it will occasionally fall to me to help with judicial visits. Most recently we received a Japanese family judge for whom I designed a comprehensive itinerary of visits to demonstrate the inner workings of family justice in our jurisdiction. This included time at 1 Hare Court, Levison Meltzer Pigott, Goodman Ray, and each tier of the family law courts. Many other judicial visitors are keen to visit Thorpe LJ in the Court of Appeal; on these days I may even be lucky enough to be invited to lunch with them in the Inner Temple where we dine with other esteemed Masters of the Bench and enjoy coffee in the comfortable surroundings. (I hasten to add that I am a proud Middle Templar...)

• In October we hosted an Indian delegation of specialist Supreme Court judges. I was able to organise, at very short notice, a seminar involving a few of the leading practitioners on Hague Convention matters in the UK. We were able to explore any potential assistance that we might be able to provide when India accedes and thereafter creates a Central Authority to deal with Child Abduction matters.

• Every year the office manages a conference on family law, which alternates annually between Anglophone/Francophone and Anglophone/Germanophone judges. This year, the conference will be held in Vienna. The topics at these conferences can range from contact issues to the latest EU Directives on family law. We will be corresponding and coordinating with the delegates, keynote speakers and judges involved.

• I recently had the pleasure of attending a family law conference hosted by Professor Nigel Lowe at Cardiff University in place of Thorpe LJ, who was unable to attend. There are other conferences planned for next year and I hope to be able to visit the Permanent Bureau at The Hague, Brussels and Cairo. I shall also be spending time in Paris in the New Year to swot up on their family law Court of Appeal system and also to meet our counterparts at the Ministère de la Justice, with whom I correspond regularly.

The impact of immigration on family can be neither ignored nor overestimated. The democratisation of foreign travel, the deregulation of EU Labour market restrictions and a robust domestic economy have all drawn foreign nationals to our shores and consequently into our family justice system. For instance, since 2005, over 650,000 Eastern Europeans have registered to work in Britain. Many more are self-employed. Thorpe LJ is adamant that the family justice system must be able to help and cater for all who enter it. With this in mind, amongst other initiatives, we are in the process of establishing a list of mediators for family law. We are interested in mediators who may have family/cross-border mediation experience or accreditation. With the existence of a central directory published on the internet and managed by this office, we hope to be able to help cases in need of mediation.

In my limited experience, I would say that the most important aspect of my role as legal secretary to the Head of International Family Justice is an ability to network and communicate effectively (often in a foreign language) with others. This is not a task of Herculean proportions; the foundations have been expertly laid. Lord Justice Thorpe dedicates a great deal of time and effort to ensuring effective worldwide judicial collaboration on family law. Many of these relationships are personal, following meetings at international conferences and followed up by dogged perseverance through correspondence from this office with foreign Ministries of Justice, judges and legal practitioners worldwide. It is these relationships that have generated the mutual confidence and trust required to ensure a growing worldwide commitment to the facilitation of International Family Justice.