Sir James Munby calls for ‘fine-tuning’ of family law reform

Family Law|June 11th 2014

The President of the Family Division has called for ‘fine-tuning’ to the family justice system.

In his twelfth ‘View from the President’s Chambers’, Sir James Munby said the reforms of the 1990s were “outstandingly successful”, but there were still improvements to be made.

He said:

“[E]ven the finest machinery may benefit from overhaul and fine-tuning once in a while.”

He added:

“Overall, our aim, as with every aspect of the family justice system, must be to simplify and streamline the process so as to make it more user friendly for litigants, litigants in person in particular, and quicker and cheaper for all.”

One of the changes he proposed included the complete separation of the process of divorce itself from the process of a financial dispute.

He argued that as the “majority of divorce petitions proceed without any financial claims”, it would streamline the system to have the financial side dealt with separately.

He added:

“I should like to see if there is any scope for more closely aligning practice and procedure in the three major types of financial remedy cases … Linked to this the Working Group may wish to consider whether there is scope for introducing a shorter or more streamlined process in cases where the court is satisfied that this is appropriate.”

He also proposed to create a working group to explore ways to improve access to the family court system for people who cannot afford legal representation, and ways to improve the way financial remedy cases are handled.

The group will pursue the need for explanatory material, written in plain English in order to help people who “not through choice, have to act as litigants in person”.

It will also consider a review of the financial process in divorce cases. Sir James said that more out of court settlements needed to be encouraged, be it through mediation, arbitration or other methods.

Another proposal was the formation of a ‘Children and Vulnerable Witnesses Working Group’ to be chaired by Mr Justice Hayden and Ms Justice Russell.

This group will address the issue of vulnerable people giving evidence in family court proceedings, which Sir James described as an area where family law “lags woefully behind the criminal justice system”.

He went on to say he was “anxious to have [the group’s] preliminary views” so that any changes proposed could be taken into consideration by the Family Procedure Rules Committee “as soon as possible”.

Sir James also announced that he will shortly be issuing a consultation paper dealing with transparency in the family justice system.

This consultation paper will seek comments regarding the impact of his previous ‘Practice Guidance on Transparency in the Family Courts’ from earlier this year.

He also hopes to gather opinions regarding the possible expansion of media access to case information (without naming parties) and the possibility of hearing some types of family cases in public.

Photo by Renee Suen via Flickr

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  1. davidmortimermiltonkeynes says:

    The family justice system is adversarial & abusive to those who have to use & pay for it & nothing has been done by the Government to help parents or improve the outcomes for children.

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  4. christine cullis says:

    Unfortunately, the time wasted and lost trying to resolve issues related to finance and children, with an ex partner who “is too wealthy to mediate”, proves the system and the Government has failed to help parents or assist the outcomes for childen, who have nothing but memories of unresolved issues – the merry go round never stops whilst the wheels of changes to “improve” the law appear to have ground to a halt. The access and ECHR recommendations that equal representation of “arms” is not applied whatsoever to childrens, in particular schedule 1. Not one firm willing to stick their neck out and make it happen – Legal Costs applications are met with negativity and Legal costs orders are like hens teeth.

    • Marilyn Stowe says:

      Dear Christine
      Thanks for your comments.
      I agree it’s generally extremely difficult to obtain an order for the other party to contribute towards legal costs. I think the bar could well have been set too high. The inequality of arms is a real problem which derives from the alteration to the costs rules, which did away with costs orders and Calderbanks offers and instead replaced them with no costs orders. That’s fine for someone who wants to take a chance with a final hearing and can afford the costs, and at the very least puts inordinate pressure on the other side. It’s financially out gunning the weaker party. Its not fine for the weaker party who panics about costs as countless commenters to this blog have testified.
      The problem however also lies where a weak party makes a speculative claim that viewed objectively has little prospect of success. Few lawyers will take that type of case on without real prospects of getting paid. Every so often however we do, where otherwise the weaker party will get absolutely nothing. From a commercial perspective it’s unjustifiable but it has to be done.
      Law firms will run a case like this out of genuine compassion but overall they can’t fairly be criticised for being unwilling to take on speculative litigation where they won’t get paid.

      • christine cullis says:

        This was not a criticism of your firm whatsoever; more an observation. Schedule 1 states that the children of non-married parents should not be worse of than those of divorced or married parents – also no better off financially. Personally, I have observed not just my children but those of divorced parents suffer due to the out-dated legal system – it claims to put the children first, however, no consideration is taken towards financial bullying control and abuse and it is supremely difficult to evidence without making a financial application a conduct case – which again becomes costly. As over 44% of children are born out of wedlock – schedule 1 should become more accessible to those other than the “footballers” and celebrities who are super rich.

        • JamesB says:

          I agree entirely with Christine. She puts the situation well and that was pretty much what I got, a bad outcome due to solicitors ramping up costs I could not afford. Its like rich people buying the pot in poker. I believe Paul McCartney may have alledgedly taken this approach with Heather Mills who I also have a great deal of sympathy for, it becomes a dodgy mud wrestling competition except its not mud and gets messy and that’s bad process and law and as Gary Lineker says should be a lot clearer with more formulas and less posturing of nonsense by lawyers, solicitors and barristers in the best interests on the balance of probability, for the children on the basis of need and the ability to pay and other nonsensical lawyer terms which do nothing but upset and frustrate people and ramp up costs and make outcomes worse for people especially the children all round, except lawyers who take the fees and smile at how sad it is their clients cant behave in a way that might settle the matter more cheaply when it is the laws and lawyers and their process and behaviours that are the problem and not their clients whom they tend to blame when the clients are at a low point anyway. I find it disgusting.

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  6. Carol Bird says:

    Who is to blame for such changes to family court cases?????????????
    Obviously the judges involved have taken a long hard look, I imagine through looking back at the court cases for all these changes

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