It is all change again for the Family Court. The last radical change was in 1989 when the Children Act was introduced. Amongst other changes terminology with the use of “custody” and “access” to the terms “residence” and “contact”.
The terminology is changing once again and we can now say goodbye to residence and contact, and hello to Child Arrangement Orders. This is a single order which deals with the arrangements as to “with whom a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact” and “when a child is to live, spend time or otherwise have contact with any person”.
The principles on which decisions are made have not fundamentally changed, the welfare of the child is still the paramount consideration however, and there has been a lot of discussion about shared parenting in the media. The new Children’s and Families Act 2014 introduces a presumption of “parental involvement”. “Involvement” means involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect but not any particular division of a child’s time.
This focuses on the quality of parenting and many parents may be disappointed to note that this does not mean a presumption of equal division of time. The Government’s intention is to send an important message to parents about the valuable role they both play in a child’s life encourage separated parents to be less rigid and confrontational when dealing with issues regarding their children’s future.
Procedurally, there is no longer a Family Proceedings Court and a County Court but one single Family Court. The single Court will however have Magistrates and Judges and cases will be allocated to the right level of Judge when the application is issued.. As all levels of Judge sit in the same building this will reduce unnecessary delays previously caused by transferring cases between different courts. However, it may also mean longer travelling times for parents with the Court sitting centrally rather than in separate buildings.
For the past year or two, before issuing proceedings it has been expected that both parties should engage in a Mediation Initial Assessment Meeting. This has often been ignored by the Court However the requirement is now set out in Statute and the Court is less likely to allow an application to proceed if the parties have not attended a meeting unless the stipulated exceptions apply.
In summary therefore, the main changes relate to a single unified court, a change in terminology and an emphasis on the involvement of both parents in a child’s life. The basic principles do not change in that the child’s welfare is still the most important consideration.
What impact is this likely to have? Are parents likely to be concerned about a child arrangements order stating that a child is to live with them rather than a residence and/or contact order – time will tell!