New national standards designed to raise the quality of expert witness evidence in family court cases and speed up proceedings became law on the first of October. Changes to the family court rules will mean only qualified, experienced and recognised professionals will be able to give evidence as expert witnesses in family proceedings relating to children. Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes said: “We have put children at the heart of the family justice system, reducing delays that can have a harmful impact on them. The new national standards for expert witnesses will make sure that only top quality evidence is presented, as and when the judge deems it necessary. They will help us to make sure cases are resolved as quickly as possible and on the basis of rigorous advice.”
Mr Hughes has also promised action on the problem of the growing numbers of litigants in person in our courts, following the legal aid cuts last year. Speaking at the Liberal Democrat party conference he said that he had persuaded colleagues at the Ministry of Justice to find a solution to the increasing number of unrepresented people in court and that an announcement would be made within weeks. He also indicated that the application process for exceptional funding – designed as a safety net for ‘deserving’ cases that are outside the scope of legal aid – would be made ‘much easier’ before the 2015 general election.
The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has delivered an important judgment concerning applying for parental orders in surrogacy cases. In X (A Child) (Surrogacy: Time Limit) he decided, in the particular circumstances of the case, that a parental order could be made in favour of the parents who commissioned the surrogacy, despite the fact that they applied for the order well beyond the six month time limit set by parliament in section 54(3) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008.
Single parent charity Gingerbread has warned that new government figures indicate thousands of parents are choosing not to seek help from the new government Child Maintenance Service because of new charges brought in this summer. The figures, published on the 30th of September, show for the first time the impact of the £20 application fee to use the new Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’), which is gradually replacing the Child Support Agency. 3,700 fewer parents applied to the new CMS in August than in May this year, after charges were introduced on the 30th of June, a drop of 38 per cent.
And finally, the government has confirmed that backdated marriage certificates will be issued to couples converting their civil partnerships to marriages. A Government Equalities Office spokesperson said: “It has always been the Government’s intention that a marriage certificate will be issued. The design of the certificate … will be almost identical to a marriage certificate issued without a conversion, but there will be a few necessary differences. For example, to ensure that there is no doubt that the marriage is to be treated as having subsisted since the date the original civil partnership was formed, as required by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the marriage certificate will show the ‘when married’ date as the date the original civil partnership was formed. The certificate will also show the date the conversion took place.” Couples in England and Wales will be able to convert their civil partnerships to marriages at register offices from the 10th of December.