When I used to attend court to deal with a family case, it was pretty common for a party would be late because they had gone to the magistrates’ court when they should have gone to the county court, or vice versa (on occasion, even my own clients did so, despite me giving them clear instructions). The problem, of course, is that unlike other countries we do not have a specific family court building.
There is much discussion at present about a new Family Court, and anyone hearing it could be forgiven for thinking that the President of the Family Division is about to unveil a portfolio of shiny new family court buildings around the country. Sadly, that will not be the case.
If all goes to plan we will have a new Family Court next year. It will amalgamate the three existing tiers of the family courts (High Court, county court and magistrates’ court – see below), to provide a single point of entry to the family justice system (hence it is being called the ‘single Family Court’), with specialist family judges. The family court will not, however, have new buildings from which to operate – it will continue to share the same court buildings as it does present. The public may not, therefore, notice any great difference, although hopefully the new systems being put in place will improve performance.
There is, of course, a Family Division of the High Court, but that usually just uses the same buildings as the other divisions of the High Court. Accordingly, many High Court cases are heard in the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand in London, using the same court rooms as other High Court cases.
The only ‘dedicated’ family court building I know of in this country is the Principal Registry, at First Avenue House in High Holborn. I have never had the pleasure of seeing its interior (when I used the Principal Registry, it was situated in the beautiful but somewhat decrepit Somerset House), but I hope it is rather less depressing than the building’s drab office-block exterior suggests. Early in my career I used the Principal Registry (or, as it then was, the Divorce Registry) to issue all my divorce petitions, despite there being a divorce county court nearer to my office, as it was then felt that the Registry, being dedicated solely to family business, was rather more ‘expert’ than the county court (not to mention being more efficient).
Those who do not have the option of issuing their family proceedings in the Principal Registry must use one of their local courts, as above.
If they wish to issue divorce proceedings, this at present means their nearest divorce county court. There, they will have to compete for space and resources with all manner of other civil claims, from debt to housing to bankruptcy.
An even less palatable option is the magistrates’ court. Magistrates currently deal with various types of family matters, such as free-standing contact disputes. However, they also, of course, deal with criminal cases – not really a suitable environment for family litigants, who may be made to feel like criminals themselves.
I look with envy when I see pictures of dedicated family court buildings in foreign jurisdictions. Unfortunately, single Family Court or not, I cannot foresee a time when we will be able to afford such luxuries in this country.