Major reforms to the family justice system

As of May 2014 an overhaul of the family justice system has come into effect in England and Wales. It is now that we are starting to hear about the effects as we talk to clients.

The changes were described by the Head of the Family Division “as the largest reform of the family justice system any of us have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes.”

Around 270,000 new family cases arise each year and include divorce, adoption, domestic violence and local authority intervention issues.

Key features of the reforms include:

  • Replacing the three-tier system with combined Family Courts
  • A maximum 26-week period for the resolution of care cases
  • Restricting the use of expert evidence in proceedings
  • Mandatory mediation awareness sessions for separating couples in disputes involving finances or children

Replacing a “dysfunctional” system

The overriding aim of the reforms is to improve the efficiency of a family court system described by Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes as “hugely dysfunctional”.

A 2011 report found that care and supervision cases were taking an average of 56 weeks, an eternity in the lives of vulnerable children in precarious family situations. While this has come down since then, unacceptable delays persisted.

In the words of Simon Hughes, "The battle over children went on for weeks and weeks and months and months absolutely against the interests of the child".

Mixed reactions

The reforms have been met with some criticism.

Family Rights Group chief executive Cathy Ashley praised some elements of the reforms but warned that the 26-week time limit on care cases could result in decisions being made under pressure and without full consideration. This could mean children being left with abusive families or wrongly taken into care, with devastating consequences.

There new rules allow the 26-week period to be extended if necessary to resolve the case justly. However, at this stage it is unclear how that will be applied in practice.

Family solicitor Marilyn Stow criticised the obligatory mediation awareness sessions for certain disputes involving separating couples.]

Mediation involves a neutral third party facilitating a negotiation between the parties. It can be a less expensive and traumatic process for resolving disputes to going to court, especially in sensitive and emotionally charged family disputes.

However, Ms Stow warned that mediation should be “complementary” to the court system rather than an integral part of it.

Time will tell how the reforms impact the family justice system. However, there is no doubting the significance of the changes described as amounting to a “revolution” by the Family Division head.

Do you have questions relating to these changes and your personal situation? Do you think you might need a family lawyer? Talk to us by calling 08001 221 2299 and we will be able to help.