Delays, red tape, rising costs, inconsistency between courts – these are issues facing the whole courts system. The Family Justice Review has brought some of these into clearer focus in family law and while it may be the “children in care” cases that are getting most, though not all, of the headlines surround the topic, there are clear parallels to the divorce, contact and financial hearings which sit alongside them in the family courts.
The same issues keep coming up over and over again. Cutting the number of witnesses in cases and levying fines for delays were among the ways the changing system is hoping to streamline child care cases. The same problems dog divorce and separation cases. Changes being brought in, like cuts to legal aid, mean more people are representing themselves, which is adding to delays and lengthening the average time for a case to be settled by the courts.
Family courts generally suffer from a lack of automation. Regular readers of this blog will know this is a particular recurring theme for me. Why courts (most of them) still refuse to deal with email and accept electronic payments is simply beyond me. We are 20 years behind other industries in this. It also allows less scrupulous family lawyers to play the system. If they want to delay proceedings a little, legitimately, for their own ends, they can claim paperwork has been delayed or lost in the post, so a first class letter can take a week to arrive. An email would transmit the same information instantly allowing a case to move on.
Anecdotal evidence suggests the way judges deal with litigants in person differs significantly between courts. Some are overly helpful to someone who is representing themselves at a hearing rather than taking expert advice. Others are openly hostile and critical, delaying cases for minor form-filling mistakes by those untrained but doing their best. A more consistent approach is needed.
So while on the news we may hear more about the way care cases are being affected by the Family Justice Review changes, in a bid to cut the amount of time it takes to rehome young people, it is just as relevant to child contact and residence cases and other family law related issues which need the court’s input.
Of course, there is a simple solution that does away with all (well, most) of these issues relating to family courts. Always try and avoid going to court if at all possible. Taking the advice of an experienced family law specialist and doing everything possible to reach a settlement on finances and contact with children will not only save you money but also the time and hassle of becoming embroiled into the over-capacity family courts system.