Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Posts Tagged ‘family court

Changing the grounds for divorce – new legislation proposed

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Family lawyers have long argued that the current law of divorce, which requires parties to prove that a marriage has broken down irretrievably and force spouses to provide evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or years of separation – even in cases where a couple has made a mutual decision to part ways – often exacerbates conflict, rather than reduces it. Although very few divorces are contested by the parties, this practice is known to be misused by abusers choosing to contest a divorce purely to continue their coercive and controlling behaviour.

Following a consultation, in April 2019, the Government announced that it would bring forward a Bill, which if enacted, would change the law.

The key features of the proposed legislation are :

  • the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage will become the sole ground for divorce;
  • instead of a requirement to provide evidence of a ‘fact’ around behaviour or separation, there will be a requirement to provide a statement of irretrievable breakdown;
  • the two-stage legal process, currently referred to as decree nisi and decree absolute, will be retained;
  • couples will have the option of a making joint application for divorce, alongside  the option (existing) for one party to initiate the process;
  • the ability to contest a divorce will go;
  • a minimum timeframe of 6 months, from petition stage to final divorce (20 weeks from petition stage to decree nisi; 6 weeks from decree nisi to decree absolute), will be introduced.

Proposals for reforming divorce law are always controversial. Critics argue that making it too easy to get a divorce will undermine the institution of marriage. But those who currently deal with divorce on a daily basis see the emotional harm that current arrangements can bring and have broadly welcomed the new proposals.

The Bill will be introduced ‘when parliamentary time permits’.

Further information is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-divorce-law-to-end-the-blame-game which gives links to the consultation on which these proposals are based.

 

 

 

 

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Written by lwtmp

May 1, 2019 at 11:39 am

The functions of the family court: the need for joined-up policies?

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Shortly before his retirement from the post of President of the Family Court, Sir James Munby gave an extremely interesting lecture at the University of Liverpool about what he regarded as the failings of the current family court system.

He developed two principal arguments. The first focussed on what might be called the core functions of the family court; the other offered a more ‘holistic’ vision for the family justice system.

In relation to the first, Sir James noted that the core functions of the family court involved three key issues

  • determining questions of status – were a couple married or in a civil partnership or not;
  • determining what should happen to the children of marriage; and
  • determining the financial consequences of family breakdown.

He argued that the procedural rules and practices in relation to each of these questions were complex and resulted in potentially people having to go to court on more than one occasion to resolve their issues. Despite the unification of the family court under a single name, it did not and could not in practice operate as a ‘one-stop shop’.

It could be argued that these days questions of status were increasingly being determined on a ‘self-help’ basis (which would increase if the basic law on divorce were to be reformed and simplified) ; and that financial matters were being decided in special financial proceedings meetings taking place outside the formal court structure. Thus the courts were increasingly used for determining questions relating to children. But these trends should not mean that the issue of whether the family court could become more of a one stop shop should not be investigated more closely.

It was the second set of arguments – for a more holistic approach to family justice – that I found interesting. Sir James is a keen advocate of ‘problem-solving’ courts – courts that have the resources and expertise to try to deal with all the problems families may face (including, for example, criminal matters or public law issues such as immigration status) – so that families can obtain a secure basis on which they can build their future lives.

This is an interesting argument and reflects (although Sir James may not have been aware of this) research and policy development a number of years back which argued that people don’t have discrete problems (e.g. housing, or employment, or family – which are categories created by lawyers which don’t reflect how life is actually lived) but ‘clusters’ of problems. This led to interesting experiments, now regrettably abandoned for the creation of Community Legal Advice Centres or Community Legal Advice Networks, that could deal with clients in a ‘holistic’ faction.

These views are controversial, at least for lawyers, since they would mean cutting across long established categorisation of the justice system – into criminal, civil, administrative and family justice system – each with their own practices, procedures and traditions. For this reason, my hunch is that Sir James’ views may not be taken forward, at least in the short-term.

But I thought his arguments were rather refreshing, and worth thinking about.

You can read his lecture at https://www.judiciary.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/speech-by-pfd-what-is-family-law.pdf

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

September 6, 2018 at 11:50 am

Financial Remedies Courts: developments in Family Justice

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2018 will witness the start of a new approach to dealing with the financial matters that can arise when married couples are divorced. The current President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby has set out his ambition that disputes about financial matters should be treated quite separately from the process of getting the divorce itself.

To this end, a series of pilots is being launched in February 2018 in which, in three trial areas of the country, financial matters will be dealt with by specially trained judges in a reduced number of family court hearing centres. The courts undertaking this work will be known generally as Financial Remedies Courts.

The new system will initially be operated on a trial basis in three areas of the country: London, the Black Country and South East Wales.

The President clearly hopes that expansion of the scheme to other parts of the country will take place rapidly.

In a recent Circular, Sir James wrote:

My core ambition for financial remedy work is to improve significantly both the application of procedural justice and the delivery of substantive justice.
Procedural justice will be bettered by the appointment of a cadre of specialist judges to the Financial Remedies Court (FRC) and by a process of early allocation of a case to the right judge at the right level  at the right place, so as to ensure maximum efficiency. It will be bettered by the application and enforcement of standard directions and interim orders and by ensuring that FDRs (where the majority of cases settle already) are conducted with consistency, with sufficient time being allowed not only for the hearing but also for judicial preparation.
The delivery of substantive justice will be improved by an improved programme of judicial training; by the reporting of judgments in small and medium cases by the judges of the FRC to promote transparency and consistency; and by ensuring that sufficient time is allowed for the preparation and conduct of final hearings.
An increase in transparency will result in increased predictability of outcome, which in turn should lead to a higher rate of settlement or, for those cases that do not settle, a reduced rate of appeals.
Although initially hearings will be paper-based, it is intended that – in common with other changes being made in the justice system – there should be rapid moves to making the process an entirely digitised one.
These changes are being accompanied by another reform which has seen the introduction of many more standarised orders, which will be used by judges and avoid the need for parties or their legal advisers to draw up orders that then have to be approved by the judges. Sir James hopes this will particularly assist litigants in person.
A full statement of Sir James’ vision can be seen in Circular 18 available at https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/view-from-the-president-of-family-division-20180123.pdf

Written by lwtmp

January 24, 2018 at 11:35 am

Keeping the reform of Family Justice under review – the work of the President of the Family Division

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A notable development in the programme of change currently happening in the Family Justice system is the very personal attention being given to the programme by Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Court. He publishes a regular series of newsletters, which he now calls ‘The View’, setting out progress both on matters of the reform of family law, and the processes of the courts.

He clearly supports the aims and objectives of the Norgrove recommendations for change and is anxious that practice and procedures are made more efficient. He is clearly concerned about the resources available to the Family Justice system, but does not think that more resources is the answer to all the problems of the system. He wants new approaches to be developed as well.

One particular development of which he has become a strong supporter is the notion of ‘problem-solving courts’. The theory is that many families that get caught up in the care system do so because there are aspects of life style – especially alcohol and substance abuse – which result in children coming to the attention of social service departments. The argument is that if you offer a programme of support for the parent(s) who are not coping well, to change their lives, this could result in few children being brought within the case system – with all the cost that this entails.

Some years ago, Judge Nicholas Crichton established a new type of court – the Family Drug and Addiction Court (FDAC) – which sought to put these ideas into practice.

In 2015, a FDAC National Unit was created, which seeks to promote the development of these courts in different parts of the country. In its first year it had helped more than 15 such courts to come into existence.

Sir James Munby is extremely impressed with their work and a powerful advocate for their further development.

To read Sir James Munby’s newsletters/Views go to https://www.judiciary.gov.uk/publications/view-from-presidents-chambers/

To read more about the FDAC Unit go to http://fdac.org.uk/

 

Written by lwtmp

November 9, 2016 at 3:08 pm

Transforming the English Legal System: Family Justice

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The Consultation Paper, Transforming our Justice System, has little to say on further reforms to the Family Justice system.

It has been undergoing radical change over the last few years, following publication of the report by David Norgrove and the creation of the single family court. The Government clearly wants work in progress to continue.

Progress with these reforms is kept under active review by the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, who now issues regular newsletters on developments – the latest is the subject of a separate blog item.

Written by lwtmp

October 5, 2016 at 5:13 pm

Divorce on-line: a cautionary tale

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There is much talk, excitement even, at the prospect of the court system at last taking steps to embrace on-line technologies to increase efficiency in the process of resolving disputes.

There are already a number of proceedings that can be started on-line, such as possession proceedings and money actions.

The family courts are also engaged in these developments. But just before Christmas 2015 a problem was identified with one of the on-line forms that can be used – Form E.

Form E is the form on which parties in divorce, dissolution, nullity or judicial separation proceedings disclose information about their assets and liabilities. One feature of the Form is that is has a calculator built in which calculates a figure which judges can then use to judge any financial settlement.

This fault that was discovered meant that the automatic calculator in the form calculated the wrong total for an individual’s net assets by failing to deduct certain liabilities.

The fault had not always been there but it  was present in versions of Form E which were online between April 2014 and mid December 2015 and also between April 2011 and January 2012.

HMCTS staff found that a total of 36,527 cases had used different versions of the Form, of which 3,638 files – 10% – contained the faulty calculator version of Form E. Of these, 1,403 cases were still live, allowing HMCTS to intervene immediately to clearly flag these cases to the courts in order to avoid the error affecting the final orders in these cases.

But 2,235 files – 6.1% – were closed cases, so that the fault could have affected the outcome.

On 21 January 2016 the Minister Shailash Vara announced that parties in these cases would be contacted to see whether they wanted their case to be reviewed.

Although the increased use of IT in court dispute-resolution procedures is inevitable, this instance is a reminder of the importance of ensuring that relevant software is throughly tested before it is made publicly available.

It should be noted that the error was not discovered by a solicitor (they tend to use different software) but by a company called the Family Law Clinic who provide low cost assistance to parties seeking to do the divorce themselves.

It may also be noted that DIY divorce is not just for those of moderate means. The high profile divorce announcement, also in January 2016, by Gary Lineker contained the information that he and his wife had obtained their divorce for just £400.

For the ministerial statement on Form E see https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/family-justice.

For the family law clinic see http://www.familylawclinic.co.uk/contact-us.html

For news of the Lineker divorce see http://money.aol.co.uk/2016/01/18/how-the-linekers-did-it-keeping-divorce-costs-down/

 

 

 

 

Written by lwtmp

January 22, 2016 at 11:42 am

Experts in family law cases: new practice direction

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In May 2013, the Government launched a consultation on the standards that experts in family cases should have. The standards had been drawn up by the Family Justice Council. The judiciary have recently announced that these standards are now operational.

The standards include making sure that the expert:

  • has knowledge appropriate to the court case,
  • has been active in the area of work or practice and has sufficient experience of the issues relevant to the case,
  • is either regulated or accredited to a registered body where this is appropriate,
  • has relevant qualifications and has received appropriate training, and
  • complies with safeguarding requirements.

The standards were developed in partnership with the Family Justice Council.

For further details, see http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/publications/new-national-standards-for-family-court-experts/

Written by lwtmp

October 30, 2014 at 12:11 pm