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Major reform hits family courts in England and Wales

A major family justice reform has taken effect in England and Wales, which has extensively overhauled the way that the family courts system will operate. Changes are intended to result in a greater focus on the needs of children and a significant reduction in delays.

The changes stem from the Children and Families Act, and have resulted in changes such as a new combined Family Court. They are heavily influenced by the findings of an independent review in 2011 which identified a number of issues with the family justice system in England and Wales as it previously stood. The review found that long delays in cases relating to care and supervision of children were leaving the young people concerned with their "futures undermined". The length of time it took to resolve these cases was averaging at 56 weeks.

Under the new system, it is hoped that children of divorcing and separating couples, as well as those taken into care, will have their needs better addressed. There is now a 26-week time limit on cases relating to care and supervision, meaning that in usual circumstances they should be resolved more than twice as quickly as the previous average. This is facilitated by factors such as a new, combined family court replacing the previous multi-tiered system and limits on the amount of expert evidence that can be used. There are also new measures to try and ensure that the most appropriate location and the most suitable judge are chosen for each case. Senior judges will also have more time to focus on cases that are more complex, in order to facilitate the fastest and smoothest resolution possible even when things are more complicated.

Furthermore, it is now compulsory that couples undergoing separation seek mediation before resorting to court for matters relating to children or finances. This, it is hoped, will reduce the likelihood of children being affected by difficult court battles, as parents will be encouraged and helped to seek alternative solutions.

Some aspects of the previous system and related terminologies have been changed in order to better focus on the needs of children rather than the rights of parents. New child arrangement orders are intended to help facilitate an increased focus on children from the parents themselves.

The new reforms have been welcomed by many. Children and Families Minister Edward Timpson said that the reforms "will mean a swifter system where children's best interests are placed - where they rightly should be - at the heart of decision making".


Simon Hughes, Family Justice Minister, also welcomed the changes, saying "For too long children have suffered from excessive delays and confrontational court battles. Our reforms will keep families away from 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."

Family Division President Sir James Munby, meanwhile, emphasises the scale of the changes, saying they "amount to a revolution" .

K J Smith Solicitors are well-versed in all aspects of family justice and mediation. To discuss your circumstances or find out more, contact us on 01491 630000 (Henley on Thames), 0118 418 1000 (Reading), 01753 325000 (Windsor) or 020 7070 0330 (Central London).