New combined Family Courts were introduced earlier this year in England and Wales as part of the family justice system reforms. The reforms also include new time frames for cases where children are taken into care and compulsory mediation awareness sessions for separating couples. The reforms have been introduced following a review carried out in 2011 which found that vulnerable children were having their “futures undermined” by excessive delays in care and supervision cases.
There are estimated to be about 270,000 new family cases each year dealing with issues such as local authority intervention, divorce, domestic violence and adoption.
Unfortunately, the review found that because of institutional problems within the sector, care and supervision cases were taking on average 56 weeks to conclude. Although that figure has undoubtedly reduced in the last 2 years, there were still problems with the system. The new family justice reforms have been designed to address some of these shortcomings.
Under the new family justice system, rules have been introduced to ensure:
- Care cases are normally completed within six months in a single Family Court, which replaces the current three-tier court system in family cases.
- Separating couples must attend a mediation awareness session before taking disputes over their finances or their children to court.
- Limits on the amount of expert evidence that can be used in cases involving children, only being permitted when it is necessary to resolve the case justly.
There are also changes to the way in which children are dealt with in family cases, with the abolition of labels such as “residence” and “contact”, which were thought to focus on the rights of parents rather than the needs of the child. The changes are also intended to ensure the right level of judge is appointed for a particular Family Court case, and that it is held in the most suitable location. Justices’ clerks and their assistants will also be authorised to assist all judges across the Family Court.
Commenting on the reforms Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, said:
“Today marks the largest reform of the family justice system any of us have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes.”
“Taken as a whole, these reforms amount to a revolution. There has been, indeed there had to be, a fundamental change in the cultures of the family courts. This is truly a cultural revolution. I have visited every care centre to see for myself how it is taking shape.”
Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes told the BBC that under the previous system “the battle over children went on for weeks and weeks and months and months absolutely against the interests of the child”. He predicted the new rules would provide “security and certainty”, and would prevent children being “moved from pillar to post”. However, Family Rights Group chief executive, Cathy Ashley told the BBC the reforms were a “hotch potch”:
“There are some positive measures, but also some provisions will potentially work against children”, she said, raising concerns about safeguards when care proceedings are speeded up. She also said proposals to allow foster carers to go on to adopt children they are looking after could make it harder for children to be placed with their extended family.
For further information on the new family justice reforms or for first class legal advice in all areas of family law including divorce/civil partnership issues, separation, childcare proceedings, financial provision and division of assets, co-habitation disputes, co-habitation agreements, domestic violence and uncontested divorce proceedings, contact Harold Stock & Co Solicitors on 01457 835597 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.