The world of family law has undergone a number of radical changes over recent months. A whistle-stop tour follows!:
The new Family Court
The new Family Court came into being on 22nd April 2014. Before this date family cases could be heard by three different levels of court: The Family Proceedings Court (the Magistrates’ Court but with specially trained magistrates sitting with a legally qualified legal adviser), the County Court (where the case would be heard by either a District Judge or Circuit Judge) or the High Court. Cases would start in one of these and could, if necessary, be transferred up or down between the levels.
These have now been merged into a single family court. This is the one point of entry to the family justice system for most family cases. Magistrates and Judges will still hear cases but it is the court staff who decide which is the best tribunal for the particular case. Hearings will still take place in the geographical area best suited to those involved.
Legal aid is no longer available for family cases going through the courts in the vast majority of cases, irrespective of the means of the person concerned. The main exception is where there is evidence that the applicant is a victim of domestic abuse. Legal aid is however still available to fund mediation.
Mediation is a process where a couple discuss and resolve the issues between them face to face at a series of meetings which are chaired and facilitated by a professional mediator. Mediation is not compulsory. It is however now a requirement that any person who wishes to make an application to the family court for an order relating to children or finance, save in some limited circumstances, must have attended a meeting with a mediator. The purpose of that meeting is for the mediator to assess whether the issues could be resolved in some way other than by using the court.
Mediation is perhaps the best-known way of doing this, but there are others. Collaborative law can be a very useful alternative to the court, especially where more complex financial issues are involved.
The Children and Families Act 2014 introduced significant amendments to the Children Act 1989. The family court now makes child arrangements orders which specify, amongst other things, which parent a child will live with after a separation and the time they will spend with the other parent.
Headlines such as “Children from broken homes are to get new legal rights to maintain relationships with both parents” suggest a revolution. In fact all the Act requires the court to do in disputes relating to children is presume, unless the contrary is shown, that involvement of that parent in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare.
Huge changes to be taken on board by all those who have any part in the family justice system. Let us hope they make life better for all concerned.