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Specialist family courts being piloted for financial matters

You may well have seen recent reports in the newspapers on plans to open specialist family courts to deal with the ‘super-wealthy’ battling over their finances following relationship breakdown. These headlines and articles have been somewhat misleading.

It is true that the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, did circulate a statement on Friday 8th December, six months after declaring that the time had come to ‘de-link’ applications for divorce (decree nisi / decree absolute) from financial proceedings, indicating that there will be a pilot of a specialist court dealing solely with finances following the breakdown of a marriage. This court will deal with a variety of financial cases and not just ‘big money’ cases.

Sir James Munby explained, ‘Following discussions with HMCTS, I am proposing to pilot the Financial Remedies Court (FRC) concept in three places, starting, I hope, in February 2018: London, the West Midlands and South-East Wales. I envisage that further pilots will follow quite shortly on a rolling programme.’ Sir James also explained that, ‘The FRC will function quite separately from the Regional Divorce Centres’ (These are the centres which currently handle divorce applications, rather than applications in relation to finances or children).

Sir James indicated that there will be a number of regional financial hubs, where both the administration and the judicial leadership for that hub, will be based. Each hub area will have a lead judge, who must be a judge with expertise in financial remedy work. Hearings will be conducted at selected courts for that regional hub. Mr Justice Mostyn, a High Court judge, has agreed to be the national lead judge. Initially the courts will deal with financial remedy claims within divorce/dissolution proceedings but in due course this will be extended to all types of family financial remedy cases. Only specialised judges who work in this area will sit in these courts and all district judges and circuit judges currently in post who do this work will be ‘grandfathered’ in. It is not yet clear when Cambridge will become part of this process.

The proposal is intended in part to meet concerns expressed by the Law Commission and others about apparent geographical inconsistency of outcomes in financial remedy cases on divorce. If you have previously experienced the unpredictability of the outcome of financial cases through the courts, you may agree with the wisdom of this move. Financial matters require expertise in this field and there are times when a judge who has a background in civil and not family law is left to deal with these important financial hearings.

This pilot seeks to provide a similar degree of attention to the complexity of the case for financial matters as is afforded to children cases, where there has been a specific allocation and gate-keeping procedure for some time now, designed to ensure that each case is heard at the appropriate level, and focussed on the child’s best interests.

FRCs will also begin a process of de-coupling financial proceedings from the divorce process. In contrast to financial disputes, Sir James Munby notes that divorce as a process is largely administrative with, in theory, limited judicial involvement. By taking out financial proceedings, FRCs will also free up more time in the overburdened family courts which will benefit individuals who are simply seeking a decree nisi and decree absolute, and hopefully reduce the administrative delays.

At Cambridge Family Law Practice, we welcome this new initiative. If, as is the aim, the outcome is to free up the family courts to function more efficiently and provide a greater level of expertise in financial cases this will hopefully offer more predictability in the outcomes of financial remedy claims. However the outcome of litigation will remain to some extent uncertain as the Judges will continue to have a significant level of discretion when deciding an individual case. We, at Cambridge Family Law Practice, can guide you through the likely outcome of a financial application and we look forward to providing further information about the Financial Remedies Court roll-out in London in February 2018 and thereafter in Cambridge.

If you have any questions about what you’ve read here or any family law issue, you can call us on 01223 443333 and make an appointment to speak to Simon, Adam, Tricia, Sue, or Gail.