The new Family Court comes into force today (22, April 2014) in England and Wales as part of a major shake-up for the family justice system. A single Family Court will replace three separate tiers of courts that currently deal with family proceedings.
This means that couples will have a single gateway into the family justice system whether dealing with children in care, adoption, divorce or finance. All divorcing couples will now have to attend a mediation and assessment information session (MIAMS*) before they can proceed to court. This is a compulsory information session on how to resolve a private family dispute out of court. Couples must now at least consider mediation before they can go to court.
A second reform will cut delays in care cases. In the Family Justice Review in 2011 it was found that disputes regarding the care of children were taking on average 56 weeks to be resolved, from this week onwards the target will be 26 weeks.
Contact and residence order
Is no more! There will now be a single order, labelled as a child’s “arrangements order”, which deals with the arrangements as to “with whom a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact” and when a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact with any person.
Although attending a MIAM will be compulsory for most people, there are exceptions. These include:
- If there has been, or is a risk of domestic violence;
- One of the parties is bankrupt;
- The parties agree there is no dispute to mediate;
- The whereabouts of one party is unknown;
- The application is made without notice to the other – party;
- There is a significant risk to the life, liberty or physical safety of one party;
- Having spoken to three mediators in a 15 mile radius, none is able to provide a MIAM within 15 days.
A single Family Court
The review carried out in 2011 found that vulnerable children were having their “futures undermined” by excessive delays, with care and supervision cases taking an average of 56 weeks. Although that time has reduced, the new time limit in care cases of 26 weeks should mean speedier and better outcomes for vulnerable children.
Separating couples must attend a mediation awareness session before taking disputes over their children or finances to court. Not every couple will be able to resolve issues outside the court process but MIAMS are designed to inform couples about all their options.
Now where an application is issued, couples will have a single gateway into the family justice system. The gatekeeper will consider each application as it comes to court. They will have a crucial role in determining whether alternatives to court should first be attempted, as well as determining which court and judge is most appropriate for dealing with children in care, adoption, divorce or financial matters.