The largest family justice reforms ‘for a generation’ will come into effect today (22 April), introducing a new combined Family Court in which all levels of judge are able to sit in the same building and a simplified single system.
The reforms, which see many of the family justice provisions from the Children and Families Act 2014 implemented, replace the previous three-tier court system in family cases.
Justices’ clerks and their assistants will be authorised to assist all judges across the Family Court – including on undefended divorce cases – allowing judges to focus their time on more difficult cases, and all levels of judge will be permitted to sit in the same building in order to reduce unnecessary delays caused by transferring between different courts.
The changes also include a 26-week time limit for care proceedings, compulsory mediation information meetings for separating couples and measures to limit the use of expert evidence in family proceedings involving children.
Introducing the changes, family justice minister Simon Hughes said: ‘For too long children have suffered from excessive delays and confrontational court battles. Our reforms will keep families away from negative effects of battles or delays in court and make sure that when cases do go to court they happen in the least damaging way.’
The reforms follow the Family Justice Review in 2011 led by chairman David Norgrove, which found that vulnerable and damaged children who were meant to be protected were having their ‘futures undermined’ by excessive delays, with care and supervision cases taking an average of 56 weeks.
Hughes added: ‘These reforms mark a significant moment for the family justice system, when the proposals made by the Family Justice Review are delivered. But this is not the end of the process I want to continue to work with David Norgrove, so we have a family justice system which has the welfare of children at its heart.’
Edward Timpson, children and families minister, said: ‘The new 26 week time limit will reduce unnecessary delays by ensuring that judges focus on the facts without getting caught up in unnecessary evidence or bureaucracy. These reforms will mean a swifter system where children’s best interests are placed – where they rightly should be – at the heart of decision making.’