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Family justice system sees major reforms in bid to put focus on children's needs

View profile for Sam Miles
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The whole landscape of family law changed on 22nd April 2014 as the Children and Families Act received Royal Assent.  The changes to the law will implement recommendations made by the Family Justice Review in 2011 which showed that the futures of vulnerable children were being jeopardised due to long delays and acrimonious court battles between parents.  Sam Miles, Partner and Head of the Family department, here reviews the three key areas that have been reformed, and what this means for separating families.   

The first step to take with any separating couple is to attempt to resolve any disputes over finances or children arrangements before ending up in court.  If court can be avoided, so can the negative affects that this can have the parents, and more importantly on the children involved.  This is why Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings have become compulsory for couples looking to separate.  Mediation is an extremely effective way of resolving disputes without the lengthy and costly court battle, with figures showing that the average time for a mediated case is 110 days compared to 435 days for non-mediated cases.

While mediation is the best way to positively move forward following a separation, it would not be realistic to assume that every case can be solved this way, and unfortunately the courtroom cannot be avoided.  There are 270,000 new family cases each year, ranging from divorce and separation where mediation is an option as well as those where it’s not, such as domestic abuse, adoption and local authority intervention.  In all care cases where a child has been removed from their parents, getting a decision as soon as possible for the child on where they will be living and settling them into a new daily routine is of the utmost importance, and so the other reforms brought in by The Children and Families Act are hoped to speed up the care process.

The Family Justice Review 2011 found that under the previous system, care cases were taking an average of 56 weeks.  Following the reforms, there is now a 26 week time limit for cases to be settled.   This, along with the reform to the Family Courts themselves which sees the former three-tier court system replaced with a simpler single system with single application points, should help the judges in these cases focus on the key issues and come to  decisions quicker about the future of the child concerned.

All of the reforms that have been introduced have been done so with the clear message that children should be at the centre of any decision, not parents scoring points against each other, which is so often seen.  This has been further enforced with the abolition of labels such as “residence” and “contact”, as these were thought to focus on the rights of parents rather than the needs of the child.

There have been divided views on the reforms, and whether the plans that are intended to help children will actually hinder them.  The main concern revolves around the new 26 week time limit, as during this short amount of time it’s possible that extended family to the child will not be aware of, or involved in the proceedings, and so living with them is not an option presented to the judge.  Instead of going to a home they know, the child could instead be adopted or placed long term with a foster family.  There are discussions that could overcome this issue in some cases, as extensions may be possible.  There are however no set rules as of yet as to the circumstances in which an extension will be granted.

If you would like more information about Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings, or your family arrangements, you can contact Sam or the Family Team on 02380 717431 or visit their section of the website here .

ENDS

This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.