I know I’ve said this before, and I would be happy to be corrected, but the more I look at the various new provisions that are being published to enable the new family court to spring into existence on the 22nd of this month, the more I struggle to see much in the way of significant change.
Take, for example, The Family Court (Composition and Distribution of Business) Rules 2014, which were laid before Parliament on the 1st of April. The Rules are intended to “make provision for the composition of the family court and for the distribution of business of the family court among judges of the court.”
Rule 3 tells us the composition of the court. The court will be composed of:
(a) one of the following—
(i) a judge of district judge level;
(ii) a judge of circuit judge level; or
(iii) a judge of High Court judge level; or
(b) two or three lay justices (i.e. magistrates).
Sound familiar? Yes, exactly the same as the current Family Proceedings (Magistrates’) Court, County Court and High Court.
Moving on, we are told which judges will deal with appeals. Circuit judges will hear appeals from decisions of district judges and lay justices, just as they do at present. Although not stated in the Rules, appeals from decisions of circuit judges will still be dealt with by the Court of Appeal.
The Rules also explain who can deal with certain types of cases. Now, I’ve not gone through all of the possible types of case to compare them with the present rules, but it looks to me as though whatever one level of judge (or lay justice) could do now, they will still be able to do after the 22nd of April, and whatever cases they can’t handle now, they still won’t be able to handle after the 22nd of April. In particular, the limitations upon the powers of lay justices look pretty familiar.
What, then, is going to be different? Well, there will be a ‘single point of entry’ for applications to the family court. The court will then allocate each case to the appropriate level of judge, according to its type and complexity. This will get rid of the confusion about which court is dealing with a case, and eradicate the need for cases to be transferred from one court to another, but were these problems really that serious?
I understand that over time it will be more commonplace for judges to hear cases at buildings that are currently Family Proceedings Courts, and for lay justices to hear cases at buildings that are currently county courts. The family court will sit at both locations and any level of judge will be able to hear cases at any location where the family court is sitting. OK, this will be a change, but hardly an earth-shattering one.
Otherwise, I understand that the way that family cases are managed, heard and administered on a day to day basis will remain largely the same as it is now.
An awful lot of time, effort and resources are going into the creation of the new court. Will all of that be worthwhile? Is the family court really going to be something new and better than before, or will it just be an illusion, created to give that impression? I suppose only time will tell.
Photo of Birmingham Magistrates Court by Elliott Brown via Flickr