As we are constantly being reminded, we are in the midst of the biggest changes to family law in this country for a generation. As part of these changes, certain things with which we have been familiar for many years are being swept away.
Yesterday I wrote about one example of this: section 41 of the Matrimonial Causes act 1973. Previously, I have written here of another example: residence and contact orders, which are to be replaced with child arrangements orders.
A further example of something that will pass into history next Tuesday is the family proceedings court, where I spent many long hours during my time practising as a family lawyer (mostly, as I recall, waiting for my case to be heard).
Rather like the new family court, the family proceedings court was a thing that didn’t exist as a separate entity, in the sense that there was no such thing as a family proceedings court building. What family proceedings courts were was the family ‘section’ of the magistrates’ court, usually existing in a separate part of a building shared with all of the other functions of the magistrates’ court, in particular the criminal functions.
Family proceedings courts were established by the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980, when they were originally known as ‘domestic courts’. Initially they sat for the purpose of hearing ‘domestic proceedings’ cases, but that term was subsequently replaced with the more modern term ‘family proceedings’, and ‘domestic courts’ therefore became ‘family proceedings courts’.
Family proceedings courts could only deal with certain specified types of family proceedings. Examples of the types of proceedings they could deal with included care proceedings and private law children proceedings such as residence and contact applications where there were no proceedings taking place elsewhere – for example, divorce proceedings in a divorce county court (in which case any children application should be to that court).
Family proceedings courts usually comprised lay justices (magistrates), assisted by a legally trained court clerk. Until the advent of the Family Procedure Rules in 2010, family proceedings courts had their own set of rules, which largely mirrored the rules applicable to family proceedings in other courts.
From the 22nd of April, magistrates’ courts will no longer be able to deal with family proceedings. However, as the family court can sit anywhere in England and Wales, it will be possible for it to sit in county or magistrates’ court buildings. Further, lay justices will continue to have a place in the family court, dealing with similar types of cases as they did in the family proceedings court.
The advocates of the new single family court seem convinced that it will bring real change and improvement to the system, although I’m not sure whether it will be very much more than cosmetic. Certainly, as far as the demise of the family proceedings court is concerned, it appears to be little more than the loss of that name, with everything that used to comprise the court in future existing under the banner of the new family court.