The Court have been using pilot schemes to help come up with new ways to make the judicial system quicker, simpler and open to all. They have tested centralising application centres (good for saving public money), late-night Court opening hours (not so good for tired Court staff and busy parents) and an online system for deciding claims (results yet to be announced).
The latest pilot scheme is one that has been received positively by parents and family lawyers alike:- Settlement Hearings designed to help parents reach agreements in cases involving children.
At the moment, a parent can apply to the Court if they think that the arrangements for a child should change. They might seek to change who a child lives with, or change how often they see their child. When the Court is asked to make a decision about these things, it schedules the first Court hearing. This hearing is called First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment, or FHDRA.
At the first hearing, the Court investigates the issues and decides how the case should proceed. The Court often orders a child welfare officer or Cafcass officer to prepare a report to help the Judge make a decision later on. The Court will list a second hearing or a Dispute Resolution Appointment (DRA).
At the second hearing, the Court will hear evidence and try and narrow the issues remaining between the parties. Apart from setting out any further evidence that the Court wants or ordering any short-term arrangements for the child, the Court will then schedule a Final Hearing.
In this new pilot scheme, the Court will invite the parties to agree to attend a Settlement Hearing before a DRA. The Settlement Hearing will be confidential and held in private. It will give the parties the opportunity to settle the case themselves, without being forced to do so by the Judge. A Settlement Hearing Judge will be available in an advisory capacity, to guide the parties about the issues, but this Judge won’t be able to impose a Final Order on the parties if they do not agree matters themselves. If the hearing is successful, then that is the end of the case. The parties will have decided their own outcome together and it will be made into a binding Court order. The parties will not have to go to a Final Hearing.
If the hearing was not successful, the case will continue to a DRA and then a Final Hearing. The case will be heard by a different Judge, who will know nothing about what was said at the private Settlement Hearing.
The hope is that by giving the parties the opportunity to settle the case, there will be more instances of parents deciding between themselves what the final arrangements for a child should be, rather than having those arrangements imposed on them by a Court. The pilot scheme will apply to private and public law cases. If it is successful, then it is expected to be used around the rest of the country.
If you would like to speak to Dominic Wisdom on any of the matters highlighted in this article, or for any other issues related to family law, please contact him on firstname.lastname@example.org or on 01494 478604.