Reform, reform: The last week in family law

The Ministry of Justice has asked the Family Justice Council to take forward the Law Commission’s recommendation to clarify the law of “financial needs” on divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership. The new guidance is to be published later in the year. Justice Minister Simon Hughes said: “We want separating couples to have the best information available to help when they approach the difficult and emotional separation process. This new guidance will lead to a better understanding and more realistic expectations of what they will expect to receive as financial settlements and enable swifter and better resolution of disputes.”

The biggest family justice reforms for a generation came into effect on the 22nd of April. On that day the new single Family Court became a reality and most of the family justice provisions from the Children and Families Act were implemented, including a 26 week limit for care proceedings, compulsory attendance at mediation information meetings for anyone wishing to apply to the court for an order and the replacement of residence and contact orders with the new ‘child arrangements orders’. Family Justice Minister Simon Hughes said: “For too long children have suffered from excessive delays and confrontational court battles. Our reforms will keep families away from negative effects of battles or delays in court and make sure that when cases do go to court they happen in the least damaging way.”

Meanwhile, it has been reported that Government Ministers have launched plans for a network of centres which will be manned by students and trainee lawyers who can guide divorcing couples before they appear in court. The trainee lawyers will be there to ‘hold the hands’ of divorcing couples, and ‘reduce confrontations across the floor of the court’.

This news comes as data from the Ministry of Justice shows that more than half of all parties involved in child-related cases are unrepresented, following the abolition of legal aid for most family law matters last April. The number of unrepresented parties, either parents or grandparents, in child-related proceedings has increased year-on-year by a third, from 25,656 between April and December 2012, to 34,249 between April and December 2013. In the most recent two months for which data is available, over half of all parties (52%) attending child-related proceedings were unrepresented.

Finally, and staying on the same topic, the Law Society has responded to the family justice reforms by saying that the benefits of speeding up the way that the family courts work will be undermined by the legal aid cuts. They say that the fact that more and more people are representing themselves in the family courts as a result of the cuts is leading to more delay. Law Society president Nicholas Fluck said: “The Law Society supports these changes, but the problem for many separating and divorcing couples is getting access to legal advice to help them through the court process, or to find alternatives to court. The cuts in legal aid for family law have put people off from seeking advice and support from solicitors who can explain where they stand and what their rights are. It’s important that victims of domestic violence can still get legal aid and that legal aid is still available for family mediation. However, the fact that more and more people are representing themselves in the family courts is leading to more delay.”