Combined Family Courts Now in Operation

If you work in family law as a Legal Secretary or PA, you will already be fully aware of the fact that this branch of the legal system has just experienced what many people are calling a revolution of change. New laws connected with family law have just come into force (April 2014), and for the most part, people are hopeful that they will mean some changes for the better in this area of law; however, others have concerns that the new laws could lead to a whole new set of problems.

The biggest change is the fact that the previous three-tier court system in family law has now been replaced by a single combined court. This is all primarily aimed at making this area of law more accessible and expeditious when it comes to dealing with around 270,000 such family law cases each and every year.

New laws and procedures were required, as children were known to be suffering unnecessary delays in the determination of their care and supervision orders in the past. In fact, such cases took an astounding and totally unacceptable average of 56 weeks to be resolved by the courts. The new laws that have just come into force now dictate that such cases should take a maximum of 26 weeks to be settled. However, there are facilities in place whereby this deadline can be extended and people working in this area of law fear that this may be relied upon so regularly that in the end there might not be any real speeding up of such cases after all. 

At this point it is very important to consider the individuals who will be affected by this law: we are talking about vulnerable children who have been removed from their parents by local authorities and placed in care. Of course, it is imperative that such cases be determined as quickly as possible, but unfortunately, especially when it comes to parents being placed on drugs and alcohol rehabilitation programmes that can last for up to a year, the family court must ensure the child’s needs are always best served and this needs to be balanced with the fact that the parent deserves a chance to prove that they can get back on their feet and take care of their own children.

Another law has come into effect and received mixed reviews. This is the requirement for couples who are looking to get a divorce to attend mediation sessions beforehand. This is required in order to prevent such acrimonious disputes over financial matters and rights of access to children. Whilst we can all see what is being attempted here, some might argue that it is rather dictatorial to force couples who are intending to divorce to attend such sessions. However, where children are concerned more so than financial matters, this could mean far less suffering in the future if these mediation sessions work well and this will only ever be for the greater good.

Justice Minister Simon Hughes has stated that the new laws were required in order to fix what was a “very dysfunctional system”. Mr Hughes also accepted that the new family laws represented a “hugely important change”. There would appear to be no denying either of his assertions here, and now it will be a case of waiting to see how these new laws and regulations work in practice. Fingers crossed it will mean that cases are resolved far more expeditiously and that children no longer suffer to the same extent as before.