A new era for family justice?

Next month sees two big developments in the world of family law: the coming into force of the Children and Families Act, and the final switch to the Single Family Court. 22 April is the date circled in the calendar for family lawyers.

The Act received royal assent on 13 March and will come into force on 22 April. It covers a wide range of areas relating to children and families, including plans to tackle delays in the adoption system, reforms relating to children and young people with special educational needs, changes to the system governing children and young people living in care homes or with foster parents, and new legislative arrangements relating to parental leave from employment which, amongst other things, is to be extended to adopters and parents going through surrogacy arrangements. In cases concerning taking children into care, there is a maximum 26-week time limit for completing the proceedings, with the possibility of extending the time limit in a particular case for up to 8 weeks at a time, should that be necessary to resolve the proceedings justly.

It is not usual practice for new Acts of Parliament to be launched with a short video, but the Department of Education has seen fit to do so, in a strange parody of the ‘My Look Back’ movie phenomenon that recently marked Facebook’s tenth anniversary. Should you have a spare one minute and five seconds you can watch the video here . The video concentrates on what the government perceives to be the key measures that will make things better for children in care (‘public law’ as we family lawyers call it); as for us, we’re going to concentrate on what it means for you, our clients (almost always ‘private law’, where the state is not involved).

There are many changes, and space does not permit us to examine them all here. Of key interest to us are the changes to the family justice system. These include:

• Making it a requirement to attend a family Mediation, Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) to find out about and consider mediation before applying for certain types of court order, unless an exemption applies.

• The introduction of a presumption into relevant legislation (the Children Act 1989 which governs much of the law surrounding disputes relating to children) that it is in the best interests of the children of separated parents to have the continuing involvement of both parents in their lives. Of course, if evidence shows that one or both parents presents a risk to the child, then the presumption will not apply. This presumption is not a presumption of shared residence or care, and involvement can be direct or indirect.

• Terminology will be changed so that we no longer speak about “contact orders” and “residence orders” but rather “child arrangements orders”. This is a more neutral term, but the contents of child arrangements orders will still deal with where the children will live and when they will see the parent with whom they do not primarily live.

• Expert evidence in family proceedings concerning children will only be permitted when necessary to resolve the case justly, and the court’s permission will be required to instruct an expert.

Many of the new developments have in fact already been rolled out, so the difference will be the legislative force behind them rather than a radical change to practice.

At the same time as the Act passes into law, the Single Family Court will open its doors. The new unified court will operate out of existing court buildings, but brings together the functions of the Magistrates, County and High Courts under one umbrella organisation. All locations of the family court will deal with all aspects of family law, with a few limited exceptions which have been reserved to the High Court (mainly to do with mentally incapacitated adults and international child related disputes).

All new cases will be started in and heard by the Family Court, but will be allocated to an appropriate level of judge by the court staff. All levels of judges and magistrates will work alongside each other as “Judges of the Family Court”, each hearing cases of an appropriate level of complexity. The Court of Appeal and Supreme Court remain unaffected by the changes.

There is a lot of administrative work going on behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the new court from April. Lots of the court forms which lawyers and litigants have to use will be amended, and some mundane things like finding space in existing court buildings for magistrates to sit have been progressing. There is a meeting for court users in Cambridge at the beginning of April which will explain more about how things will be happening for us here.

We hope that the unification of the fragmented system of family courts will help streamline justice for families, which is, after all, the aim of these reforms.

If you have any questions about how the new Act or the new court will affect your case, or to make an appointment, please call us on 01223 443333.