The significant changes made to the family justice system in April 2014 were said by the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby as being the start of a “cultural revolution”.
Radical changes were made to the family justice system against also the backdrop of sweeping cuts to the legal aid budget resulting in the withdrawal of the availability of legal aid funding for many areas of family law.
Some of the most significant changes to the family justice system from April 2014 included:
- The implementation of a single family court (replacing the old systems of magistrates and county courts)
- Compulsory mediation information sessions (unless exemptions applied) for all divorcing couples
- The replacing of the residence and contact orders with a new child arrangements order
- The imposition of a 26-week deadline for public law cases compelling courts to conclude cases where the local authority start care proceedings concerning a child to finish a case within 26 weeks
Some of these changes have been successful and some less so. Drawing the old magistrates and county courts into one single family court has seemed a sensible option for many years. In general terms it appears to have been achieved successfully.
The 26-week public law deadline has demonstrably brought the average length of care cases down and overall this must be considered a good thing although it is important that one does not lose sight of those cases where blind adherence to the 26-week timetable could force a very different outcome if for those cases where a more flexible approach is required – additional time is given.
On the one hand whilst the number of private law cases concerning children has reduced (the latest quarterly figures for October to December 2014 show that the number of private law cases started was 10,382 a reduction of 11 % when compared with October to December 2013), and undoubtedly this is an impact of the withdrawal of the availability of legal aid for many cases, it is also the case that the court – the single family court – has been for some time under these changes giving the appearance of being over burdened.
An impact of the 26-week deadline for public law cases has been that it affects the listing of private law family cases.
For some years now the courts have been faced with increasing numbers of litigants in person. Taking the quarterly figures for October to December 2014 – the number of cases where both parties were legally represented fell by 42% when compared with October to December 2013 – and when compared with October to December 2012 thereduction is 64%.
Whether a parent facing a problem over arrangements for children is wanting to be represented throughout any court proceedings, it remains important that at the earliest stage a parent is provided with clear coherent advice from a family law practitioner familiar in working within the new changes and aware of how significantly they have changed the family justice landscape. Some sensible initial advice at the outset can be invaluable in setting the tone and trajectory of attempts to resolve matters either through discussion and negotiation or if necessary through an application to the court.
Bill Wilkins is a partner in the Stephens Scown Family team. He specialises in all aspects of family and child care law and is a member of the Law Society’s Child Care Panel. Stephens Scown has offices in Exeter, Truro and St Austell. Its top-rated family team advises clients on a wide range of family law issues including divorce and family finance. Bill can be contacted on 01932 210700 or email firstname.lastname@example.org