New proposals to reform system for resolution of family disputes

New proposals to reform system for resolution of family disputes

Kris Seed - Senior Chartered Legal Executive - Head of Private Law Children Team children proceedings

Kris Seed – Senior Chartered Legal Executive – Head of Private Law Children Team

A group of family justice experts has published a report outlining proposals to deliver what it calls “a significant and ambitious programme of reform” of the system for resolution of disputes between separating couples in England and Wales.

The proposals relate to ‘private law’ cases, i.e. cases that do not involve social services, and include the delivery of services, advice, and support to families to assist them in issue resolution and co-operative parenting outside of the court.

The proposals aim to address a number of problems facing the Family Court, including a significant increase in case volumes in private law; an increase in the number of litigants attending at court without having received any legal advice; the court being used as a default for many separating couples, rather than forms of non-court dispute resolution; parents with unrealistic expectations about what the court can offer; and a high incidence of returning cases.

Some of these problems have, of course, been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

 

What do the proposals seek to achieve?

resolution of family disputes

 

With those aims in mind the report says that the main objectives of the proposed reforms are threefold:

1. The promotion of non-adversarial problem-solving. This means not just promoting out of court methods of issue resolution such as mediation, but also devising and implementing a ‘problem-solving’ approach to the resolution of applications within the Family Court, whereby the court looks at ways of resolving problems faced by separating families, such as drug and alcohol abuse.

2. The effective management of cases through the courts – including working out at an early stage exactly what will be needed to resolve the case, and using technology, where appropriate and fair, to improve the experience of court users.

3. Putting children and families first – including enhancing the voice of the child at all stages of the proceedings.

 

What does this mean for me?

Mother and child

So what will all of this mean for anyone who has a private law family issue to resolve?

Well, it may mean many changes to the way that such issues are resolved. We could not set them all out here, but the following are some examples.

The first thing is that it will be less likely that the issue will be dealt with by the Family Court. Separating couples will be encouraged to settle their disputes out of court, and out of court methods of dispute resolution are likely to be enhanced. They may even be integrated with the court process so that, for example, a couple may be ‘diverted’ to mediation, while they are waiting for a court hearing.

More cases that go to court are likely to be assigned to a ‘dispute resolution’ hearing early in the court process. Dispute resolution entails the parties attending court and using their best endeavours to resolve the issues between them by agreement, with the assistance of the judge.

On the other hand, where it is clear that a dispute resolution hearing will not be successful, that step in the proceedings may be bypassed altogether, so that the case is dealt with as swiftly as possible.

Where it is clear that a welfare report will be needed (whereby a court welfare officer investigates a children case and reports back to the court, usually with a recommendation as to what order the court should make), this may be directed without needing a hearing, so as to speed the process up.

More hearings are likely to be dealt with by the court ‘on the papers’, without the parties having to attend court. Obviously, this will only happen in appropriate situations, in particular where it does not affect the right of access to justice.

These are all things that may happen quite soon. However, the report envisages further changes in future. Those, however, will have to wait for another time…family law team

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