Reforms to the family court are causing delays and making it harder for the public to gain access, an early adopter of the new system has claimed.
Wide-ranging changes, including the introduction of a single family court and compulsory mediation information sessions (MIAMs) for separating couples, were extended nationally last week after being introduced in the Medway region.
Kirstie Law, partner at Tunbridge Wells firm Thomson Snell & Passmore, said the move to a ‘single point of entry’ and centralised administration as part of the single court, with proceedings issued only in the designated family centre, are making access harder.
People can no longer go to their local court but have to attend the designated court, which can be an hour away, she said.
Increasing numbers of litigants in person, Law added, are finding it hard to get information about the process. ‘Far from improving access to justice, some of the changes are making it harder,’ she said.
The introduction of MIAMs, Law said, is also creating delay and expense and can prevent a party from issuing proceedings where the other party refuses to co-operate.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: ‘Our reforms will keep families away from the 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 family court system, he said, was ‘confusing’ to navigate, while the single court makes it simpler, reducing delay and increasing continuity. He added that most family applications are sent by post, so people do not have to attend the court initially.
On MIAMs, he said it is only the applicant who is required to attend. There is no legal requirement for the applicant to do so before proceedings begin.
Meanwhile, MoJ data revealed the impact on the courts of the removal of legal aid in most private law family cases in April last year.
The number of unrepresented parties in child-related proceedings increased by a third year on year, from 25,656 between April and December 2012, to 34,249 between April and December 2013.
In the most recent two months for which data is available, over half of all parties (52%) attending child-related proceedings were unrepresented.