The Law Society has backed the Family Justice Review’s ‘far-reaching’ proposals for reform, but urged the government not to proceed with the changes unless it can provide the money to implement them properly.
Responding to the consultation on the Interim Report of the review panel, which is chaired by David Norgrove, the Society also called for the introduction of ‘no fault’ divorce.
The panel’s recommendations aim to tackle delays in the system and make it more cohesive, with the introduction of a dedicated family service and a single family court, both of which are welcomed by the Law Society.
However, Chancery Lane warned: ‘Reform of this scale cannot be delivered without proper investment.
'The proposals are ambitious and they deserve resourcing accordingly; half-measures will not succeed, and the opportunity will be lost.’
It said: ‘A botched implementation, caused by lack of investment, will only make the existing system worse. In our view, this change should be made only if there is proper financial resourcing to ensure its success.’
In relation to divorce, the Law Society opposed the proposal to replace the current two-stage process of decree nisi and absolute with a single notice of divorce.
It said: ‘There is little evidence to suggest that this aspect of the current system causes problems for parties. The two-stage process is well understood, and so any changes will need to be widely communicated.’
In addition, the Law Society suggested that the adversarial grounds for divorce should be removed and a ‘no fault’ system introduced, which required no grounds to be shown as to why a marriage had irretrievably broken down.
‘The changes to the family justice system promote cooperation and agreement between parties, and it is in keeping with this approach that the adversarial nature of marriage breakdown is diminished,’ it said.
On other proposals, the Law Society said it was crucial that the child’s wishes and feelings are central to the new service, but again cautioned that proper resources needed to be available to enable that principle to be observed.
The interim report recommended that the family justice service should, in time, take over the family legal aid budget.
But the Law Society said it had ‘strong reservations’ about the proposal.
It said many of the tasks associated with legal aid apply to all legal aid work, not just family cases, and it would be inefficient to have two bodies undertaking the tasks.
Chancery Lane supported the concept of developing an online information hub and telephone helpline, but warned that it would not be appropriate for all members of the public.
It said: ‘It is likely that some vulnerable people may find accessing services by telephone or online difficult or even impossible,’ and said there should be multiple entry points for accessing information, including e-mail and face-to-face communication.
Chancery Lane agreed that dispute resolution services have a significant part to play within the family justice system, but saw no reason why mediation assessments should be carried out only by mediators.
It said solicitors and other advisers are well placed to identify whether particular cases are suitable for mediation.
Law Society president Linda Lee said: ‘While we do not agree with all the review proposals, we recognise that no proposed solution to system problems of this magnitude can be perfect.
'We therefore support and join with the review panel’s drive for far-reaching change to family justice.’