Earlier in the Summer, proposals to change the adversarial nature of family courts and speed up cases in England and Wales were published in a report by Mr. Justice Ryder and backed by the head of the judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice. The report sets out to improve the culture for children, families, judges, lawyers, Social workers and Cafcass and to cut the ”unacceptably long delays in cases”.

The main proposals within the report 25 page report, (which can be found on the Major Family Law website), are summarised below:

1. Family courts at present often deal with child custody cases following divorce or separation. They also decide whether victims of child neglect or abuse should be taken into the care of the local authority. Currently, family matters are dealt with by the “family division” of the High Court, by district judges in county courts where the most difficult and high-profile cases are heard or by magistrate-led “family proceedings courts. The report recommends that there be a single Family Court and this new court will have a new structure. All levels of judge and magistrate will be members of the same court. They will sit as “Judges of the Family Court”. Judges and magistrates will sit in the same buildings, where possible and will not be allowed away from court for more than four weeks at a time to ensure better continuity.

2. “The Family Court will not absorb the High Court, but in future High Court Judges will regularly sit in the Family Court providing leadership to interpret and apply legislation, rules, practice directions and case law in decisions that provide binding precedents”.

3.  There is to be more training and guidance for judges to help them reach decisions faster.

“The traditional model of the judge as a passive arbiter, holding the ring between the protagonists, allowing the parties to adduce whatever evidence they wish, and however relevant it may be to the ultimate outcome of the case or not, will change.”

4.  There will be less reliance on expert witnesses:
“Experts are misused and over-used. The court must be adept at scrutinising whether the evidence is already before the court and whether further expert assessment is needed on the same issues.”

5.  All but exceptional Public Law cases are to adhere to a 26-week timetable. There will be rule and practice direction changes relating to the use of experts. It will be made clear that other than sufficient adversarial fact-finding, the judge’s function in determining the welfare of the child is investigative. “Expectation documents” will set out, in plain language, what the court expects from family justice agencies. “A consistent but firm approach will be developed to litigants whether represented or not to ensure that issues remain in focus and are addressed within the timetable set by the court.”

6. Financial remedy cases are to become, wherever possible, a “major strand” of the new Family Court.

7. Where the dispute is between parents or other relatives of children after family breakdown (“private children law”) or is financial and arising from a relationship breakdown. Clients will have access to the new family justice system through the internet and/or telephone hub which will refer most cases to a mediator.

8. The voice of the child is crucial. Decisions and processes of the court will be better explained to children at the centre of family action and the views of children will be heard and communicated to the court. It is intended that over time, the majority of judgments can be handed down in an anonymous form, to protect the privacy of children and adults alike.

Some of the proposals do not need legislation but will be introduced in parallel to proposed changes in the government’s Crime and Courts Bill and the Children and Families bill.

At a time when budgets are being slashed and Legal Aid for divorce cases is about to disappear forever, there is a huge concern that there will be a large rise in the number of self-represented parties in court. This in turn is bound to lead to increased delays in private cases.

Thankfully at Major Family Law, we have invested heavily in ensuring that our lawyers are trained in the most up to date Family Law solutions and are able to fully embrace the changes ahead. We are the only practice in the region to now offer a Full Service Specialist practice. Three out of four of our legal practitioners are trained in Collaborative law methods and one is a qualified Mediator.

At Major Family Law we aim to ensure that every divorce is a Dignified Divorce.

Joanne Major is owner of Major Family Law, the Divorce and Family Law Specialists.

Tel: 01661 824582     www.majorfamilylaw.co.uk Twitter: @MajorFamilyLaw