You may be about to begin separating from your partner, spouse or civil partner. You may be experiencing difficulty in agreeing arrangements for your children. However, what I can be sure of is, that if you are reading this article, you are interested in how the recent changes to the family law rules may affect your situation and your case.
The new regime was introduced on 22nd April 2014. The rules are new (!) and implementing the changes will be subject to the practices of local courts.
I will attempt to give an insight here as to how these changes will affect people going through the family dispute process. I will only deal here with the changes made to the private children law relating to arrangements for children within their family and the relevant court changes, as that is my specialism.
If you imagine you are beginning to experience difficulties in arranging when and where your children see your ex-partner or spouse, then the recent changes which have been brought in under the ‘Child Arrangements Programme 2014’ governing private children cases, will mean that:
- when you consult a solicitor, or when you speak to the court office, they will be providing you with more information about how you can resolve the problems you are experiencing. There will be lots of what is called, ‘signposting’ – pointing out the various organisations and agencies who may be able to help you. These will include non-court based methods of resolving disputes, such as mediation and collaborative practice. So, so far, so good. More information for you is a benefit. You can then consider the best way forward with the knowledge of all of these options.
- You will be encouraged to think about preparing a ‘Parenting Plan’ as a useful document for you and your ex-partner to work from to help agree a way forward. This is designed to narrow the issues between you and hopefully promote an agreed way forward. See – www.cafcass.gov.uk/media/190788/parenting_plan_final_web.pdf
- If the dispute does not get resolved then before you make any application to the court for help, you will need to have attended a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) to learn more about mediation. There are certain exceptions to this rule – for example where there is evidence of domestic violence. However, as a general principle, this is a gateway to court proceedings and must be attended.
- The terms ‘Residence’ and ‘Contact’ are no longer to be used. Instead you will be applying for a ‘Child Arrangements Order’. It was felt ‘Residence’ and ‘Contact’ created a feeling of entitlement to the parent who had the ‘Residence’ which was, overall, unhelpful. The terms Specific Issue Order and Prohibited Steps Order are still in use.
- Even once you are going through court proceedings the Judge has the power to adjourn those proceedings to enable you and your ex-partner to attend non-court based resolution, for example, mediation or collaborative practice, if he or she considers that is a possibility. It is never too late to reconsider a non-court based method of resolving your dispute.
- There is a greater likelihood (although not guaranteed) that you will have the same Judge for all of your hearings. This is a great benefit for you as the Judge will have knowledge of how both of you have conducted yourselves throughout the proceedings and there will, arguably therefore, be greater accountability to the Judge.
- The names of the first and second hearings have been changed to: ‘First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment’ and ‘Dispute Resolution Appointment’. This clearly sends the message to all involved that the purpose of the hearing is to resolve the dispute.
- When an application is made for a ‘Child Arrangements Order’ the CAFCASS officer (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service – they are specialist social workers who assist the court) will identify any safety issues before the first hearing dispute resolution appointment. This report will be filed with the court 17 days after receipt by the Cafcass officer of the application or 3 days before the hearing itself. This is intended to narrow the issues immediately and of course, protect any children at risk as soon as possible.
- The whole court process from beginning to end is intended to be shorter. In applications for ‘Child Arrangements Orders’ or other private Children Act 1989 applications, the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment will be listed within 5 weeks of receiving your issued papers from the court.
- The whole process is also designed to focus more effectively on the best interests of the child involved. So, for example, any listing dates for future hearings will take account of the child’s school year, examinations, birthdays etc.
As you can see, the new rules are intended to encourage non-court based methods of resolving family disputes – such as Collaborative Practice and Mediation. This is because it is well recognised that agreements reached between parents (rather than orders imposed by the courts) are far better for the child concerned, because they work better. The added benefit is that those methods may be quicker and cheaper for the people involved, rather than going through expensive court proceedings.
The new rules are also designed so that the court system, if needed as a last resort, is quicker and more effective at working out a resolution. The timescales are reduced, you are more likely to see the same Judge more than once in the proceedings and cases can be adjourned for mediation or collaboration as necessary.
The court process is now beginning to incorporate these non-court based methods of resolving disputes as a matter of law, not just chance. A positive development in family law for separating families across England and Wales.
Katy Zikking is a specialist family solicitor and Collaborative practitioner. You can contact her now by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 01179 055141 or 01275 741202.
 Practice Direction 12B FPR 2010 sets out the new Child Arrangements Programme (‘CAP’)
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