Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Reforming the Justice system: creation of the Family Court

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The long-awaited Family Court opened for business on 22 April 2014.

Following enactment of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, instead of family cases being divided amongst Family Proceedings Courts (as Magistrates’ Courts dealing with family matters are called), county courts and the Family Division of the High Court, there is now a single point of contact for all family matters that need resolution by courts. In practice, the judges that formerly undertook family work will continue to do so, and the buildings used for family cases will be the same. But questions of how matters are to be divided between the different types of judge will be decided by judicial administration on a practical basis. It is specifically provided that certain types of simple cases may be dealt with by magistrates sitting on their own, rather than in panels. Justices’ clerks and their assistants are also given wider powers to assist the judiciary in straightforward cases.

As you will be aware, the Children and Families Act 2014 was given Royal Assent on 13 March and a number of significant family justice reforms will be introduced from 22 April.

The reforms to the family justice system are aimed at improving the way the system functions as a whole. In particular, we want to make sure that the welfare of children is at the centre of decisions, reduce delays in proceedings, and encourage families to use court as a last resort to resolve disputes. We are:

  • Placing a requirement on a person to attend a meeting to find out about mediation before they are allowed to make certain applications to the family court, for example, disputes over finances or children arrangements (unless exemptions apply – such as in cases of domestic violence).
  • Moving to the use of child arrangements orders (CAOs) in place of ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ orders.
  • Streamlining court processes for divorce and dissolution of a civil partnership by removing the requirement for the court to consider the arrangements for children as part of these processes.
  • Introducing a 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision cases, to improve the timeliness of finding a permanent placement for children. The court will have the discretion to extend cases by up to eight weeks at a time, should that be necessary to resolve proceedings justly.
  • Restricting the use of expert evidence in children (both public and private law) proceedings to that which is necessary to resolve the proceedings justly and requires courts to have regard to the impact of delay on the child when deciding whether to permit expert evidence in children proceedings and whether the court can obtain information from parties already involved;
  • Reducing unnecessary administrative work, by removing the need to renew interim care orders and interim supervision orders as frequently, allowing the courts to set interim orders which are in line with the timetable for the case.

– See more at: http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/advice/family-court-resources/family-law-changes-information-from-the-ministry-of-justice/#sthash.RpPOYiu2.dpuf

The Children and Families Act 2014 is also brought into effect on the same day. This implements the recommendations of the Norgrove Committee on Family Justice. It

  • makes attendance at a meeting to find out about mediation a compulsory requirement, before any proceedings before a court can be started (save for exceptional cases, e.g. where there is domestic violence) so separating couples must consider alternatives to court battles when resolving financial matters and arrangements for child contact;
  • replaces residence and contact orders with ‘child arrangements orders’ designed to encourage parents to focus on the child’s needs rather than what they see as their own ‘rights’;
  • introduces a 26 week time limit for care proceedings to further reduce the excessive delays in these cases and give greater certainty to the children involved (this can be extended by up to 8 weeks if necessary to resolve a case justly);
  • streamlines the process of obtaining a divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership;
  • restricts the use of expert witnesses in both private and public law children proceedings, requiring the court to consider the impact of delay on the child and whether the information could actually be obtained from parties already before the court.

The impact of cuts to legal aid are that it appears there are many more litigants in person before the courts. It remains to be seen whether, when the changes have bedded down, this remains the case.

For further information see https://www.gov.uk/government/news/family-justice-reforms-to-benefit-children; and https://www.gov.uk/government/news/major-changes-in-family-courts.

See also http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/advice/family-court-resources/family-law-changes-information-from-the-ministry-of-justice/

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Written by lwtmp

June 2, 2014 at 3:40 pm

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