The focus of media coverage on the publication of the Family Justice Review last week was the call to ensure child care decisions in family courts were made within six months. A noteworthy point and a sensible decision, though you would hope this is the longest anyone would have to wait for a decision rather than the norm.
In his report, former senior civil servant David Norgrove said family justice was inherently slow and children suffered “shocking delays” over decisions about who they would live with and where that would be. Ironic he suggested it was slow when you consider how long it has taken for this review to get to this stage.
Original plans to give grandparents greater rights in seeing grandchildren were dropped from the final report, and it suggested parents should use mediation to make arrangements for caring for their children and only turn to the courts as a last resort. This seems to be a recurring theme in policy at the moment, linked to the desire to free up court time from family disputes that might be best dealt with elsewhere.
It could perhaps be said that what had been billed as the biggest shake-up to family law in a generation and has been a long time coming is a little lacking in real change. However, there are some encouraging nuggets to be mined from it.
It does appear to give preference to collaborative law, so rather than simply focusing on mediation, other methods of settling disputes without going to court, like using collaboratively trained lawyers, are encouraged. Whether this will lead to an increase in the number of collaborative lawyers in this country is another question. For collaborative law to be effective it needs both sides to be represented by a collaborative lawyer and these are not as plentiful as we would like to see.
Along similar lines, I was also encouraged to see this comment: “Legal advice is required alongside mediation in all financial cases to ensure that agreements which are reached are fair and are capable of being made into an enforceable court order. Legal advice is desirable alongside mediation in relation to matters pertaining to children, if the issue is more complex than simply the quantum of contact.”
This backs up what I have been saying for some time: there is no substitute for the input of an experienced family lawyer and mediators will often not be equipped to deal with anything other than the most basic and straightforward settlements.
But I’ll leave you with this. One of the suggestions that went to consultation was doing away with the terms decree nisi and decree absolute because they were outdated. This has been shelved. Why? On the grounds that the IT cost would be too high.