The ‘new’ Court programme
The 22nd April 2014 saw many changes being brought into the Family Court. You will no doubt have heard about many through the press however here is a practical summary of some of the main changes which may affect you and your family;
The introduction of a 'Single Family Court'
Previously there have been different tiers to the Family Court system, most notably the Family Proceedings Courts and County Courts. There is now a new combined Family Court. Each application will be placed in the court timetable before either Magistrates or a Judge with the intention that each case will now be dealt with by the same Judge throughout and dealt with at the appropriate level of the Court depending on the complexities of the case.
An application to Court in relation to children matters can no longer be made without at least the person making the application attending at Mediation. The Applicant is required to attend, at the very least, an initial appointment with a Mediator, known as a 'Mediation Assessment and Information Meeting' (MAIM), and for notice of this attendance to be given to the other party, providing them with the option of also attending.
There are limited exceptions, such as in cases where there is domestic abuse or removal of a child, however by and large the Court will not accept Court applications without mediation being attended.
It is hoped that this will encourage parties to resolve matters without the need for the Court.
Child Arrangements Programme
A new 'programme' has been brought into effect. This will prioritise what is in the best interests of the children. There will be more pressure on parties to resolve disputes at the first hearing and the Court will be reluctant to allow ongoing review hearings. It is expected that this will mean proceedings are dealt with quicker but it will give parties less opportunity to review arrangements. Generally speaking under this new programme there will only be one or two Court hearings before a Final Order is made.
Again, there will be exceptions to this 'rule', largely in cases where there is domestic abuse or serious concerns regarding a child's/ children's safety.
As part of the Child Arrangements Programme The Children Act 1989 will be amended so that the Court must now presume that the involvement of both parents in a child's/ children's life will 'further the child's welfare' i.e. that having some form of contact with both parents will now be presumed to be in a child's best interests unless a party can show (supported by evidence) the contrary.
This will mean that a starting point for any application to Court will be that the parent making the application will have some contact with the child/children, whether that is spending time with the child or writing to them, unless the other party can show that the person making the application is a risk to the child/other parent.
In addition to the above there has been much made in the press about a change in cases where Social Services are involved and children have been removed from the care of their parents. It is true that from 22nd April 2014 it was recognised in statute that from the issue of proceedings, i.e. when children are removed from their parents to the matter being completed will be a maximum of 26 weeks. In fact this is a system which has been in the Courts for nearly six months already. The only change therefore is that this is now being recognised formally. The intention behind this change is to ensure that children do not remain in the care system too long. There have been reported cases where Court proceedings between parents and Social Services have extended well over a year and this will now change.
All in all the changes revolve around putting children first in our Family Court system however this will not come as anything new to Solicitors, Judges and Barrister's alike; it has always been the case that children's welfare should be the primary consideration when looking at their future with both parents. It is therefore questionable as to what these changes will mean practically and we can only watch this space!