March 15, 2014

Countdown to new family laws: the Children and Families Bill


Major legislation that will overhaul the family court system and have far reaching implications for divorcing couples has been given Royal Assent and will become law on April 22 this year.

The Children and Families Bill brings in a major changes designed to focus on the needs and care of children, to streamline divorce and family law cases – and to discourage couples from embarking on confrontational court room battles.

David McHardy, consultant solicitor at Jones Myers, is a family mediator, family court Deputy District Judge and former national chair of Resolution. He answers key questions about the new law and how the changes will affect separating and divorcing couples.

What key changes will the Bill introduce?

  • Streamlining the court system and creating one single Family Court to replace the current three-tiered system of magistrates, county and high courts
  • Making it compulsory for couples to attend a mediation information and assessment meeting (called a MIAM) before they are allowed to take disputes over children or finances to court. It is intended that both parties attend a session, which will last about 45 minutes
  • The introduction of Child Arrangements Orders to ensure that both parents are involved in their child’s upbringing.

What do you see as the three biggest benefits of the new legislation?

  • MIAMs seek to encourage couples to avoid traumatic court battles and to consider alternative options including mediation. As well as speeding up the divorce process – which can be as long as 18 months through a court – mediation still qualifies for some Legal Aid funding, unlike most other areas of family law
  • The Child Arrangements Orders may help prevent polarising parents’ opinion about where children will live and how often they see a mother or father. The order is designed to meet the best interests of the child, rather than what a parent wants
  • A Single Family Court should ensure more streamlined procedures.

What are the challenges or concerns about the new law?

  • The NSPCC is concerned that Child Arrangements Orders could confuse parents, who may believe that the shared parenting aspect of the law means a 50/50 split in time with their child or children – it doesn’t. The charity also points out that the new law will not end parents’ stand-offs about who brings up their children
  • The new court structure will take some time to ‘bed in’ as magistrates, county and high courts merge into one single and central family court. It is important that there is enough funding combined with good planning and organisation to ensure a smooth transition – and that we have enough judges and courts available
  • Access to mediators is patchy throughout the country – for example, I am the only Resolution MIAMs trained mediator in a five mile radius in my area of Essex so I am concerned how quickly couples can meet a mediator. Also some people may be able to avoid a MIAM completely as the legislation includes a ‘get out’ clause from the meeting if they can’t find a mediator in their area within a certain timeframe.

What should the priorities be ahead of April 22?

  • To avoid chaos and confusion – and to ensure that people understand the new system – we need a comprehensive information campaign with clear signposting by third parties e.g. Citizens Advice. Easy to digest, practical online campaigns are required to help inform and educate couples
  • Family lawyers, judges, court staff and social workers will have to adjust quickly to different ways of working. How they do this will impact on how the general public understands the new system.

In the countdown to the Children’s and Families Bill becoming law our team of experts will be examining specific aspects of the new legislation and looking at the possible effects on children and parents affected by divorce.

If you have any questions about the Children’s and Families Bill please call us on 0113 246 0055, leave us a comment below or drop us an e-mail.

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