The New Family Court and justice reforms: ‘a Hotch Potch or a Cultural Revolution’?

Paul Lancaster

Paul Lancaster

The Children and Families Act 2014 came into force yesterday which heralded the birth of the new Family Court as part of the family justice system reforms. The far-reaching reforms are intended to create a more efficient family justice system. The changes are designed to offer more support to parents and place children at the heart of the process.

The Single Family Court

In the 2011 independent Family Justice Review, criticism was levelled at the excessive delays which arose in the Court processes concerning family matters, such as delay caused by cases being transferred between the different Courts. Change was deemed to be essential and a new single Family Court was found as the solution.

All applications will now be made to the new Family Court as it will have sole jurisdiction for all family proceedings. The Family Court is a national Court and it will be able to sit anywhere. In practice, it will sit at the County Court or Magistrates Court where family cases are currently heard. The new Family Court is intended to be easier for the public to use. The reforms will ensure that the case is held in the most suitable location and a ‘gatekeeping team’ will allocate the case to a Judge of the appropriate level of expertise (see link).  In addition to this, Judges will now have the assistance of Justices’ clerks and their assistants allowing Judges to focus on more complex cases. Follow this link  for a comprehensive account of the new Family Court: .

Family Justice System Reforms

Speaking of the reforms, Family Justice and Civil Liberties Minister, Simon Hughes, explains ‘We are making sure the welfare of children is at the heart of the family justice system’. The plethora of changes brought by the Act is thought by Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division to be ‘the largest reform of the family justice system any of us have seen, or will see, in our professional lifetimes’.

The main changes are as follows:

Compulsory mediation awareness has been introduced for separating couples. This means that couples must attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (a MIAM) before they are allowed to go to Court with their disputes about finances or children. The Government has introduced this measure as they want more people to resolve family disputes outside of Court. Simon Hughes, emphasised that ‘we want to keep families away from the negative effects that going to Court can have and to use alternative solutions when they are suitable.’

The use of expert evidence will now only be permitted where it is ‘necessary to resolve the case justly’. The 2011 Review deemed the growth of the use of experts to be a major cause of unacceptable delay in family cases. The impact on the welfare of the child will be the prime factor to be taken into account when deciding whether expert evidence is necessary.

There has been a change to the definitions of “residence order” and “contact order” to “child arrangements order”. This change is to ensure that parties remember that children are the focus of such orders rather than the ‘rights’ of the parents.

A 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision proceedings has been introduced. The main objective of this change is to reduce excessive delays in such cases to provide more certainty to the children involved; making the child’s future the crux of the matter. Obviously, some cases will take longer to resolve and there is a provision to extend the 26 week period if necessary.

A guide to the statutory instruments which came into force yesterday can be found here.

The reforms have been met with much applause and can easily be said to be child and family focused. However, some people still have reservations. Cathy Ashley, Family Rights Group chief executive described the changes as a ‘hotch potch’ and was concerned about the safeguarding issues where care proceedings are speeded up. Others are concerned that mediation should be complimentary to the Court system and not a pre-requisite.  Mediation is not suitable in every case and it is often not the panacea it is described as by some.

Whether the reforms are indeed a ‘cultural revolution’ remains to be seen as much will depend upon how this is all applied in practice. What is clear though is change has arrived.

Paul Lancaster
Family Law Department
DD: 0113 227 9233

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