I’ve never known a time like it. One way or another I’ve been involved in family law for more than thirty years now. During that time there have, of course, been major changes (the Children Act 1989 and the introduction of child support maintenance both spring to mind), but there was never so much change going on at one time as there is now. In fact, there were long periods when calls for change fell on deaf ears and the system seemed to stagnate.
No so now. On the contrary, it sometimes seems that nothing is going to stay the same. So much is going on that, whilst I have mentioned many of the new developments here previously, I thought it might be worth pausing for breath to remind ourselves of some of the major changes that are in store, and to ask the important question: are these changes actually going to make things better?
Now, before I go on I should say that I have always considered myself an optimist as far as change is concerned. I remember, for example, that my late mother used to get nervous at General Election time. When I asked her why, she would just say that the possibility of change worried her (even if it meant the party she always voted for taking power!). Not so me – I loved the idea of change, and always saw it as an opportunity for things to get better (even if they often didn’t, at least as far as elections were concerned). OK, I have probably become somewhat cynical as I’ve matured (who doesn’t?), but generally I think I still have a reasonably optimistic outlook.
I’m not sure, however, that there is much cause for optimism as far as some of the forthcoming changes in family law are concerned. In fact, despite the huge amount of change, I really can’t see that things are going to improve particularly, and in some ways they are surely going to get worse.
Take the family law provisions of the new Children and Families Act 2014 for example. The requirement to attend a family mediation, information and assessment meeting (‘MIAM’) to find out about and consider mediation before applying for certain types of court order sounds good, but it really doesn’t change much. In particular, it does not require the respondent to the application to attend a MIAM, so whether it will have much effect upon the number of cases resolved by mediation is not at all clear.
Then there is the ‘shared parenting presumption’, included by the government against expert advice, just to appease those who feel the system is biased against fathers. Under it, the courts will have to ‘take account of the principle that both should continue to be involved in their children’s lives’. But they already do this. I really can’t see this provision making any difference, and it may just lead to further arguments between parents, eager to establish their ‘rights’.
These provisions are due to come in to coincide with the creation of the new Family Court next month. Now, I can see that the unification of the present three tiers of family court (Family Proceedings (Magistrates’) Court, County Court and High Court) into one single Family Court with a single point of entry is likely to have some bureaucratic benefits, but my understanding is that in most areas there will not be single dedicated family court buildings. For the most part, the new court will still have to share its facilities (and staff?) with other courts. Until that non-existent time in the future when the resources are available to create separate family court buildings, we will surely not have a truly separate family court.
My last example of change is perhaps the most depressing. The new child maintenance (or is it ‘child support’?) system has been driven entirely by government fiscal concerns. Basically, the government has given up on child maintenance and told parents to sort it out between themselves, with the ‘inducement’ being that if they don’t, they will have to pay for the system to sort it out for them. Of course, most parents always have sorted out child maintenance for themselves. Those parents are not the problem – the problem has always been the parents who refuse to pay. To now penalise the parent who needs the money because of the failure of the other parent to pay is quite wrong, and will surely lead to great hardship for many single parents and their children.
So there we are. The one certainty is that the future will be different. Whether it will be better is another matter.