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Assisting separated parents is not the role of the judiciary, cautions the President of the Family Division

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By Sarah Houston

On Friday 5 April 2019, the President of the Family Division, The Rt Hon Sir Andrew McFarlane, gave his keynote address at this year’s National Conference, hosted by Resolution, a national organisation of some 6,500 family lawyers and other professionals. The premise of which, was to address reform and improvement to the family law justice system.

Resolution, is committed to the constructive and nonconfrontational approach to the resolution of family disputes.

It also actively engages in campaigning for reform and improvements to the family law justice system. Indeed such vigorous campaigning has undisputedly contributed to the bringing about of one of the biggest changes to divorce law in over 50 years, as recent headlines claim here (Moving Divorce into the 21st Century).

In delivering his address and examining other areas for reform, the President sought to emphasise that there had to be a “better way” to help separating couples requiring help and support with their children. The President gave a strong indication that use of the family courts as a “pitch and referee” to resolve seemingly straightforward, non-abusive relationship difficulties between parents who separate, is likely to be seen as costly and an inefficient use of the courts’ resources and inevitably exacerbating acrimony between parties.

He added, however, that the identification, development and funding a “better way” to help separated couples co-parent more effectively, is not the role of a judge, but a matter for society, policymakers, government and parliament itself.

The President proposed improvements to co-parenting and recommended a “solutions-based process”, with parties engaging in a “dispute resolution alliance” of local services, with court reserved only for such cases which have a “justiciable problem”.

He highlighted that a recently appointed working group on private law children cases, chaired by Mr Justice Stephen Cobb, had been meeting regularly to address the issues, and look at ways of diverting an already unsustainable caseload away from court. The group is set to publish an interim report in May.

Proposals for improvement could include a requirement for both parties to attend mediation information and advice meetings and to meet a CAFCASS officer during the new dispute resolution stage.

The President commented that recent attempts to restructure other areas of the family law justice system had been successful. The digitising of the divorce application process has resulted in reduced error rates, having previously increased the administrative burden upon the court and delays to applications. The President indicated that the rest of the process (decree nisi and decree absolute) would proceed with moving online in the second half of the year.

Whilst many of the reported and proposed changes are not necessarily original, it is hoped that the current steps and stages, including those which are intended to be rolled out, will prove to be beneficial to parties, enabling family lawyers to more swiftly and better help their clients at such a difficult time in their lives.

Notwithstanding, the need for further reforms, the Court’s overriding objective in relation to applications made by separating parents as regards child arrangements, will always be the needs of those children and their best interests.

If you have any concerns regarding contact issues with your children, or any other family matters, please contact the Family team at TWM Solicitors, who will be pleased to assist you.

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