The whole family court system is changing: whether or not this is for the better remains to be seen. As Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division wrote in May’s edition of Family Law, “we must do the very best we can with what we have.” This is undoubtedly true but the changes to the new system do, on the face of it, give cause for concern. It is questionable how much of the new system has come from a desire to improve the Courts and how much from budgetary concerns.
Currently, solicitors consider each case and decide which Court is the most appropriate one in which to issue proceedings. This decision is usually based on location, the administration of the Court and the expertise of the Judges. It seems that in the future, this decision will be made by two members of the new Designated Family Centre’s administrative staff. We are told that a subsequent transfer to a different level of Judge will be unusual.
The Crime and Courts bill is currently working its way through parliament. The bill provides for the creation of a Single Family Court, which is expected to come into existence in April 2014. This will effectively abolish the Magistrates and County Court system as we know it. The Single Family Court will deal with almost all family cases with very few exceptions. Complex cases, which would currently be dealt with in the High Court, will remain in the Single Family Court, unless express permission is obtained from the President of the Family Division.
In practical terms, all family applications will be sent to one central administrative centre, the Designated Family Centre, where they will be allocated to a particular level of Judge and Hearing Centre, of which the Designated Family Centre is one. It is currently unclear exactly where the Hearing Centres in London will be located. It is intended that the administration of the case will remain at the Designated Family Centre throughout the case and there will be a centralised system of listing hearings.
Instead of the current system where Magistrates, District Judges and High Court Judges generally sit in different Courts, all of these Judges will be sitting under one roof along with Recorders and Circuit Judges.
It can only be hoped that the new system is robustly organised and administered to ensure proper access to justice for all who need it. Of particular concern, is the influx of litigants in person who we have already begun to see, due to the government’s dismemberment of the legal aid system which has left many people simply unable to afford legal advice and having to represent themselves. If the new Single Family Court is able to deal with cases efficiently and effectively, despite the rise in litigants in person, we may be able to consider it a success.