There has been a huge amount of criticism about the structure of the family law courts in England and Wales, and this has brought about a move towards a ‘Single Family Court’.
Currently there are 3 tiers of first-instance courts: the Family Proceedings Court where Magistrates sit, the County Court predominantly covered by District Judges and Circuit Judges, and also the High Court covered by High Court Judges. From April 2014 the Single Family Court will replace the existing family court structure. It is envisaged that that judges and magistrates across the 3 former courts will sit in the same buildings, and will apply universal procedures.
It is understood that all existing cases in the county courts will be transferred to the unified court. The venue for most hearings will be the new Designated Family Centre. This will be presided over by the Designated Family Judge with a centralised administration. There may also be additional ‘hearing centres’ where cases can be held.
It would appear that the changes have been necessitated by the reduction in the availability of public funding for certain family law matters, and also the anticipated influx of litigants without legal representation using the family courts. The current system is complex to those who are not legally trained, and yet there is an expectation that they should know the courts’ various practices across different courts.
It remains to be seen how this will operate in practice. Full guidance is yet to be published by the judiciary, but it is hoped that the move towards a unified system will also redress the balance in terms of reliance on a represented party, and the burden that then places in terms of increased legal fees, simply because the opponent is not represented.
It is clear that reform was needed, and as practitioners we can draw on our experiences within the 3 previous courts to assist clients in navigating the new procedures being introduced.
Jolene Hutchison is a Partner of Blaser Mills and Head of the Family and Divorce team. Jo specialises in complex private law children matters and financial matters arising from divorce/dissolution. For more information, please contact her on 01494 450 171 or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org