A new system of combined family courts is now in place throughout England and Wales as part of a range of family justice reforms. The new system has been described as “a hugely important change” by Justice Minister Simon Hughes, who also called the old system “very dysfunctional.”
Every year, around 270,000 new cases reach the family courts. These cases relate to a wide range of issues, notably divorce, domestic violence, adoption and intervention from local authorities. Concerns about the system in the past have particularly related to cases involving children. A 2011 review of the family court system said that delayed decisions on care and supervision were leaving children with their “futures undermined.”
The changes introduced through the new system are very much aimed at improving the way cases with children are handled. The system is intended to put greater focus on the experience and wellbeing of the children. Terms that were held to focus more on the rights of parents than on the real needs of the child, such as “contact” and “residence,” have been scrapped and a number of rules have been introduced to address practical problems with the process.
At the time of the 2001 review, such care and supervision cases averaged at 56 weeks. Though the figure has since been reduced to an extent, they should now be completed within six months in normal circumstances. This is partly thanks to the old three tiered system being replaced by a single, combined court.
Other changes include limits placed on the amount of expert evidence that can be used in any given case that involves children. This evidence can now only be used as far as necessary, if it is necessary at all, in order to ensure a fair resolution to the case. Furthermore, separating couples will be required to attend mediation awareness sessions before going to court with disputes about children or financial matters.
Furthermore, there are now new measures in place which aim to ensure that the best location is assigned for each individual case, and that the most appropriate level of judge is appointed to deal with it.
According to Sir James Munby, Family Division President, these changes constitute “the largest reform of the family justice system any of us have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes.”
Sir James went on to describe the new system as “a revolution” and to say that it represents “a fundamental change in the cultures of the family courts.”