20 March 2018
22 April 2014 marked “the largest reform of the family justice system any of us have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes” according to Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division. The reason it is so significant is that it heralds a host of changes made to the family justice system. Gone is the multitude of different courts exercising family law, each with their own set of rules. Now we have one single Family Court; a national court with designated court centres in different areas, so that right level of judge is appointed at the outset (and if all goes to plan there will be some degree of continuity of judges until a Final hearing) and cases are dealt with in the most suitable location. Gone also (although the proof will be in the pudding) are the lengthy delays experienced with the current system:
- Court hearings for variation of maintenance cases will be heard within 4 to 8 weeks of issuing an application to vary;
- Private law children disputes will be heard within 5 to 6 weeks of an application being issues; and
- Public law care cases will be completed within six months.
To assist, cases are to be more actively managed by Judges at different stages in the process, with limits being placed on the amount of expert evidence that can be used in cases involving children. More procedural matters may also now be delegated to judge's clerks, freeing up judges to deal with difficult cases. In addition, parties are being encouraged (indeed forced in some cases) to attend mediation sessions in the hope matters can stay out of the court sphere all together. This ties in with the cuts already made to the legal aid regime and the desire to see divorcing couples resolve matters amicably. Other changes are more subtle. Labels such as “residence” and “contact” have been consigned to the history books and replaced with Child Arrangement Orders, which are aimed at focussing less on the rights of parents and more on the needs of the child. The reforms make clear that, where safe and appropriate, a child should have the opportunity to benefit from the involvement of both parents. These reforms form part of the government's social justice strategy, which is, according to their press release is “aimed at making society function better by transforming people's lives. The reforms to the family justice system are designed to allow children in difficult family situations, through no fault of their own, to get the support they need to allow them to move forward with their lives and build a positive future” and to allow for a more hands-on and easy to navigate court system for those cases in which judicial intervention is needed. Laudable aims of course, although children's needs have always been at the very heart of family law and for many years now have been the first or paramount consideration for a Court to consider. Be that as it may though, these are fundamental changes. “Truly a cultural revolution” as Sir James Munby described it. We will keep you updated on how things develop.