Top divorce and family law solicitor in Newcastle and Hexham, Joanne Major states 22 April 2014 saw the implementation of the largest reform of the family justice system in a lifetime. If you have no reason to come into regular contact with the court system nor have any connection with the legal profession, you could be forgiven for failing to be aware of this monumental change. However if you should ever find yourself requiring legal intervention in a domestic issue, these changes will affect you.
The changes are a necessary response to the significant altering of family structure in our society: marriage is in decline; children live in households where one or both parents may be present; parents may be married, unmarried, or remarried, cross-cultural, same sex, or the children may be raised by members of the extended family, in loco parentis.
The existing legal system, with its roots way back in the 19th century, has been ill equipped to cope with this redefined nuclear family, and has been awash with negative press and criticism for inefficiency and delays.
The new regime seeks to address those failings and to recognise the reality of modern family life. It also acknowledges the situation arising out of the almost total withdrawal of legal aid from family law proceedings last year, which has resulted in approximately one in two family cases now having at least one party without formal legal representation:
A system based on the assumption that parties are represented must be radically re-designed to reflect the reality that parties will no longer be represented in a new world where there is so little legal aid.
In the courtroom we must adapt our processes to the new world of those who, not through choice, have to act as litigants in person.
(President of the Family Justice System, Sir James Munby)
Previously, proceedings were characterised by delay and lack of judicial continuity, which led to protracted and acrimonious proceedings. Introducing the Child Arrangements Programme (CAP), the new system seeks to simplify and streamline the legal and court process with respect to children matters, in order to make it easier and cheaper to navigate for those who are representing themselves without the benefit of a lawyer. The new, single, Family Court replaces the previous court structure and Judges will be afforded a more proactive role and will decide what issues need to be resolved and to what timetable.
Another factor in this new approach to family disputes is the active encouragement of disagreeing couples to settle their differences away from the court forum by exploring negotiated settlement methods such as mediation, collaborative law or arbitration. Such is the belief that these methods lead to swifter, sounder outcomes that the new law makes it a precondition of making an application to the court that both parties have attended at least a MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting) first.
Those at the head of the legal profession responsible for bringing into effect these monumental changes recognise that this is just the start of a larger revolution in which change will be brought to bear upon the way disputes over marital finances are settled, the rights of separating non-married couples, and the very grounds upon which divorce can be granted.
It is generally acknowledged that these changes are long overdue. Widely welcomed, the legal profession is on the cusp of a new era. The changes herald not only a change in law, but a significant change in attitude and one that needs to be embraced, not only by every member of the profession, but more importantly by every couple who finds themselves at odds over arrangements for their children and/or finances post separation.
Litigation over negotiation is no longer an acceptable approach in the family context.
Joanne Major is the Principal at Major Family Law, the Divorce and Family Law Specialists, 12 West Road, Ponteland, Newcastle Upon Tyne. T: 01661 82 45 82 www.majorfamilylaw.co.uk. Twitter: @majorfamilylaw