The Children and Families Act 2014 introduces new procedures for family law and emphasises that the welfare of any children should be at the heart of decisions made by the Family Court.
We’ve summarized some of the key changes, which came into effect on 22nd April 2014:
There is now only one family court which will deal with most family proceedings (except for a few rare exceptions). The purpose of making a single Family Court is to allow magistrates, legal advisers and all levels of the judiciary to work more closely together to improve efficiency for the families who need to use the Court.
Magistrates’ Courts and the County Court will no longer have family law jurisdiction. The Family Court is a national court and will be able to sit locally. In practice it will usually sit at the magistrate’s and county court buildings where family matters were previously heard.
More judges will be allocated to family matters in order to reduce significant delays and deal with matters where there are now recommended timescales.
Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings are now compulsory in cases concerning arrangements for children and financial or property issues.
Known as MIAMs, these meetings are designed to raise the awareness of the benefits of mediation in relation to disputes about children or finances.
Without attending such a meeting, or being exempt, e.g. in cases where there is violence, it will not be possible to proceed to a court hearing on the issue.
It is the role of the mediator to inform the parties about the mediation process, how it works and the benefits to all parties. Once completed, the mediator will certify that the MIAM has taken place and whether or not the case is suitable for the mediation process to proceed. Where one party is eligible for legal aid the cost of the MIAM will be met for both parities. If neither is eligible the cost is met by each party but in either case it is not necessary for both parties to attend together.
Legal aid may be available for mediation, and legal support with the mediation, where it would not be available for a court hearing.
It has been suggested that compulsory MIAMs are the government’s way of trying to undo increased court costs caused by reducing the number of people eligible for legal aid. The legal aid cuts mean that more people are representing themselves in court. Known as litigants in person, people without legal representatives take up significantly more court time and resources than those represented. So while legal aid expenditure has gone down, this has caused increased costs for the courts.
It isn’t yet clear whether compulsory MIAMs will keep cases out of the courts.
It’s also unlikely MIAMs will affect cohabiting couples who need the courts to decide on financial or property issues. As cohabiting isn’t a legally recognised relationship, cohabiting partners don’t have the same recognised legal rights as people who are married or in a civil partnership. While cohabiting couples may still need to attend a MIAM if they have a case involving arrangements for children, financial and property matters are likely to be decided in the County or High Courts, rather than the Family Court, so no MIAM will be required. With three million cohabiting couple families in the UK in 2013, it may be time to consider reforms to allow the law to recognise cohabiting as a type of legal relationship.
Divorce proceedings will no longer require the petitioner, when issuing a divorce petition, to also complete a statement of arrangements for children. This used to be an integral part of starting a divorce where there are children.
Where the parties are able to agree the arrangements a ‘child arrangement order’ will be made via the mediation process or an application will be made to court for a determination.
There is now a shorter procedure to be used for financial applications using simplified forms. Once the application is made there should be an exchange of financial statements within 14 days and the first hearing 4 weeks after issue of the claim.
There are significant changes concerning children. No longer will there be reference to ‘contact’ or ‘residence’ (custody). Both types of orders are now replaced by a single ‘child arrangements order’. Whilst the legal effect is identical it is hoped the change in terminology will prevent unnecessary applications.
There is now a presumption that continued parental involvement is in the best interests of the child. The Family Court will presume, unless the contrary is shown, that keeping both parents involved in the life of the child concerned will further the child’s welfare. However the law is clear that there is no presumption of shared parenting. Rather, the idea is that a child should maintain a meaningful relationship with both parents wherever possible.
Expert evidence in proceedings concerning children will only be allowed when it is necessary to resolve the case justly, with the impact on the welfare of the child being one of the factors to be considered.
While these changes are intended to put the interests of the child firmly at the centre of the system, there has always been a presumption that the needs of the child are the most important consideration in Family Court issues. This being the case, it is unclear whether these reforms will cause any substantive change in the attitude of the Family Court.
If you have any questions about Family Law, the recent changes or any other legal query, you can give us a call on 01275-378715.
The information in this ezine is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Law Express does not accept any responsibility for any loss which may arise from relying on information contained in this ezine. It is not a substitute for legal advice and specific and personal legal advice should be taken on any individual matter.