April marks the first anniversary of the family justice reforms, heralded by the president of the Family Division Sir James Munby as the start of a ‘cultural revolution’.
But family law group, Resolution, has called for these to be taken even further if they are to make a real difference.
Among the many provisions to come into force were: the single family court; compulsory mediation information sessions for all divorcing couples, unless exemptions apply; new child arrangement orders to replace the old ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ labels; and the 26-week deadline for public law care cases.
A year on, and family lawyers say that while the reforms are the most significant for a generation, there are still too many barriers to achieving positive outcomes for separating couples.
Jo Edwards, chair of Resolution, said the reforms also cannot be seen in isolation from the legal aid cuts in divorce, finance and child arrangements.
She said the next government should commit to a full impact assessment: “We know the cuts are here to stay so we need to work with judges and court staff to show the Ministry of Justice what isn’t working.”
Resolution has set out its own six-step Manifesto for Family Law, calling for: no-fault divorce; better protection for cohabiting couples; a parenting charter; reform of financial remedies; a form of family law credit; and legal aid extended to all forms of dispute resolution, not just mediation.
Ms Edwards added: “We have a divorce system focused on blame; little support for vulnerable people going through a separation; restricted access to alternatives to court; a lack of financial clarity for couples on divorce; and no legal protection for people who split up after living together.”
So much change is inevitably having an impact on family practices. The latest quarterly figures for October to December 2014 show that the number of private law cases started was 10,382, down 11 per cent compared with the equivalent quarter in 2013.
There were 10,464 financial remedy applications, 10 per cent lower than a year earlier, and 9,997 financial remedy disposals, down 7 per cent from 2013. This is the lowest quarterly number of disposals since 2009.
Ms Edwards stressed that practitioners are showing resourcefulness in unbundling services and offering innovative fee structures and alternative dispute resolution options.