As the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has said, today marks the largest reform of the family justice system any of us family lawyers have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes. The new single family court has sprung into existence. Major changes contained in the Children and Families Act 2014 (26 week deadline for care proceedings, child arrangements orders and compulsory MIAMs) have come into effect and the new Public Law Outline and Child Arrangements Programme have been implemented (for a brief explanation of these things, see my previous post here).
But it would be wrong to think that today’s events comprise the entirety of the process of reform of family law in this country. Important changes have already taken place, and more are to follow.
Take, for example, same sex marriage. This was at last introduced by the Marriage (Same Sex Couples Act) 2013, and was surely as much of a revolution as anything taking place today. Since the 13th of March it has been possible for same sex couples to marry and hopefully later this year civil partners will be able to convert their civil partnership into a marriage. Quite where this will leave the concept of civil partnership, we will have to see.
Then there are the changes to the child support maintenance system. A new method of calculation has been devised, based upon the paying parent’s gross income, rather than their net income. Obviously, this has entailed a complete change to the formula used to calculate child maintenance, and will therefore change the amount payable.
The new child maintenance system is being introduced in stages, but unlike previous changes to the system, this one will eventually apply to all. Since the 25th of November last the new system has applied to all new child maintenance applications, and I understand that it is intended to transfer all existing ‘old system’ cases to the new system by the end of 2017.
More controversially, it is intended to introduce fees for those using the new system, including an initial application fee and an on-going collection fee for those using the Child Support Agency to collect the maintenance. The idea here is partly to recover part of the cost of the system, and partly to encourage parents to agree child maintenance arrangements between themselves. However, the collection fee, being a percentage of the child maintenance, has attracted criticism, as it will obviously leave the receiving parent worse off, thereby penalising them for the fact that the paying parent does not pay the maintenance voluntarily. Quite when the fees will be introduced is not yet clear.
The last change to family law that I want to mention was announced by Justice Minister Simon Hughes just last week. In fact, this isn’t so much a change as a clarification. The Law Commission recently completed its Matrimonial Property, Needs and Agreements project, looking at certain issues relating to financial provision on divorce or the dissolution of a civil partnership.
One of the factors that the court has to take into account when considering how to distribute finances on divorce is the financial needs of the parties. However, there is some confusion as to what exactly is meant by “financial needs”, and have been some inconsistencies in the way courts have interpreted the term across the country. Accordingly, the Law Commission recommended that the Family Justice Council should provide guidance which would clarify the law relating to “financial needs”. This would ensure consistency and also hopefully make it easier for those without legal representation to understand the law, thereby approaching the separation process with realistic expectations.
Simon Hughes announced that the Ministry of Justice has asked the Family Justice Council to take forward the Law Commission’s recommendation. The new guidance is to be published later this year.
So today should be seen as just one day in the process of reform. OK, it may be the most important day, but much has already happened, and there is more change to come.
Photo by AirBeagle via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence