On taking up my position at the Ministry of Justice, I made it one of my priorities to improve our courts so they are made to work better for the people who use them.
On 22 April, the largest family justice reforms for a generation come into effect, putting children at the heart of the system. The new single Family Court becomes a reality and provisions from the Children and Families Act will be implemented.
The 2011 Family Justice Review, chaired by David Norgrove, found that the family justice system was no system at all, with vulnerable and damaged children who were meant to be protected having their ‘futures undermined’. Excessive delays were rife, with care and supervision cases taking 56 weeks. These delays harmed children’s chances of finding a permanent home, potentially damaging development and causing distress.
The existing family court has been confusing, with the High Court, county courts and magistrates’ courts all dealing with family matters. This was also inflexible and did not allow for judges, and court staff and buildings, to be used in the best way. This led to unnecessary delays when cases transferred between different jurisdictions.
I am proud of the achievements of those working in the family justice system to remedy this. From 22 April, family proceedings courts will no longer exist, while magistrates’ courts and the new single county court will no longer hear family proceedings. Instead, nearly all cases will be heard in the Family Court. The High Court will still hear family proceedings, but only specialist matters reserved exclusively to them.
The new single jurisdiction in England and Wales will create a much simpler system, with all levels of judge being able to sit in the same building, and greater flexibility for cases to be allocated to the right judge from the start.
It will also be easier for people using the courts. They will simply submit applications to the Family Court in their area and it will be allocated to the right level of judge in the most suitable location. Four levels of Family Court judges working in one court – lay magistrates, district judges, circuit judges and High Court judges – will allow more effective and efficient use of judges’ time, court staff and buildings.
Further changes included in the Children and Families Act and taking effect on 22 April will affect both public and private law proceedings.
The key change for public law, intended to help cut the time taken on care and supervision cases, is the introduction of a 26-week time limit. The average length of cases has fallen from 56 weeks in 2011 to 33 weeks now. Local family justice boards, the courts service and the judiciary have all played their part, and the pilot public law outline implemented in 2013 has given further impetus.
In private law, we want more people to resolve family disputes outside court. To address this we are encouraging separating couples to resolve disputes through family mediation, earlier and with less conflict. We have changed the law so that people will have to consider mediation before litigating in financial and children disputes – unless exempt for a special reason.
We are further supporting this process through an uncapped budget for legal aid to cover both the initial meeting and the resulting mediation sessions for all those eligible.
Underpinning these changes is a raft of secondary legislation, and significant changes to rules and practice directions. These cover everything from the allocation of business to appeals, and will help ensure the system works as a coherent whole.
This year’s changes mark a significant moment for the family justice system, when the proposals made by the family justice review are delivered. I want to make sure that I continue the job started by David Norgrove, so that from now on we have a family justice system with the welfare of children at its heart.
Simon Hughes is minister of state at the Ministry of Justice