Changes to the family justice system announced

Today marks a significant step forward in reforming the family justice system, as new legislation has received the Royal seal of approval.

Legislation to reform the system has recently been making its way through Parliament as part of the Children and Families Bill.

Today this Bill received Royal Assent and became an Act, which will lead to significant changes to the way the family justice system functions.

This includes:

  • Making it compulsory for people applying to the family courts to consider family mediation first (unless exemptions apply – such as in cases of domestic violence);
  • Sending a clear signal to separated parents that courts will take account of the principle that both should continue to be involved in their children’s lives where that is safe and consistent with the child’s welfare;
  • Introducing a new “child arrangements order”, replacing residence and contact orders, and  making changes so that when a child arrangements order is breached, the court can direct the parties to undertake activities designed to help them understand the importance of complying with the order and making it work;
  • Ensuring expert evidence in family proceedings concerning children is permitted only when necessary to resolve the case justly, taking account of factors including the impact on the welfare of the child;
  • Introducing a maximum 26 week time limit for completing care and supervision proceedings (except where an extension is needed to resolve the proceedings justly);
  • Making it explicit that, when the court considers a care plan, it should focus on those issues essential to deciding whether to make a care order;
  • Allowing the court to make interim care and supervision orders for the length of time it sees fit, up to the point the proceedings are concluded; and
  • Streamlining court processes in proceedings for a decree of divorce, nullity of marriage, or judicial separation (or, in relation to a civil partnership, for a dissolution, nullity or separation order).

The changes will come into force on 22 April, on the same day that the new single Family Court is launched. The single Family Court has been designed to ensure that family proceedings, particularly those involving children, will be dealt with more efficiently, with delay being the exception rather than the norm. It will be able to sit anywhere in England and Wales and the appropriate level of magistrate or judge will hear each case. This will enable more effective and efficient use of judges’ time and of court staff and buildings.