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According to the president of the Family Division, the biggest reform in the history of family law came into effect with the Children and Families Act on 22 April 2014, which . It makes a number of radical changes to the approach taken by the courts to date including

  • an explicit presumption that the continued involvement of parents is beneficial to a child’s welfare (in the event of divorce or civil partnership dissolution)
  • compulsory mediation and assessment; and
  • the end of contact and residence orders.

Presumption of continued parental involvement

S11 of the act amends section 1 Children Act 1989 so that it explicitly says that the continued involvement of parents is beneficial to a child’s welfare and the following principles now apply

  • when making certain types of orders the court must presume that the continued involvement of the parents in the child’s life will be beneficial for the child
  • involvement means involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect but not any particular division of a child’s time
  • the presumption will not apply where there is evidence before the court that involvement in the child’s life would put the child at risk of suffering serious harm whatever the form of involvement
  • presumption applies only in applications to vary or discharge applications under S8 Children Act 1989 or special guardianship orders and for parental responsibility by unmarried parent and removal of parental responsibility.

Mediation information and assessment meetings (MIAMs)

MIAMs will be compulsory where anyone intends making a relevant family application, including applications under the Children Act, including private law applications and financial remedy applications. This means that before making such an application, that person will need to attend a MIAM.

A MIAM is a meeting with a mediator, who will explain

  • what mediation is, and how it works
  • the benefits of mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution
  • the cost of mediation
  • whether the client is eligible for legal aid.

Child Arrangements Orders

Contact and residence orders are now abolished and child arrangement orders will govern where a child lives and with whom a child has contact and when. This is designed to make the process of arriving at arrangements for children (and child custody disputes) less acrimonious.

The child arrangements programme (CAP)

The act seeks to encourage parents to devise a plan to work out the best arrangements for their child(ren).

Prior to the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) but after issue of the proceedings, a “directions on issue” will be issued requiring the applicant to attend a MIAM, as the court will not consider the application until satisfied that the requirement to attend has been fulfilled. The court will be under an ongoing duty to consider alternative dispute resolution throughout the case.

At every FHDRA, the Cafcass officer, mediator and court will join efforts where necessary to explore the possible resolution of any issues between the parties. It is envisaged that many cases will be resolved at this stage. After the FHDRA, if a final agreement cannot be reached, the court may list

  • a dispute resolution hearing on completion of an appropriate report or on completion of a Separated Parenting Information Programme (SPIP) “If this is considered likely to be helpful in the interest of the child”
  • a fact-finding hearing in accordance with Practice Direction 12 and/or
  • a final hearing.

Review hearings will no longer be listed unless they are both necessary and in the interests of the child.

There is no time limit for the resolution of private law children cases.

A restructuring of the family court system

Since 22 April 2014 there has been a unified Family Court. Hearings in family cases will no longer be heard at the Magistrates’ Court or the County Court. Instead, they will be heard by the Family Court sitting at… (e.g. Watford), which in most cases will be the old Magistrates’ Court or County Court building. It also means that we now have a central Family Court, rather than the Principal Registry of the Family Division.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.