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A Family Justice System Fit for Families

Justice Minister Simon Hughes MP welcomes the family justice changes which come into force on the 22nd April.

Simon Hughes MP, Minister for Justice and Civil Liberties

The Rt Hon Simon Hughes MP, Minister of State for Justice and Civil Liberties

On taking up my position in the Ministry of Justice I made it one of my priorities to improve our courts, so they are made to work better for the people who use them.

On 22 April, the largest family justice reforms for a generation will come into effect, firmly putting children at the heart of the system. The new single Family Court will become a reality and provisions from the Children and Families Act will be implemented.

The 2011 Family Justice Review, chaired by David Norgrove, found the family justice system was no system at all and the vulnerable and damaged children who were meant to be protected were having their 'futures undermined'. Excessive delays were rife, with care and supervision cases taking 56 weeks. These delays harmed children's chances of finding a permanent home, potentially damaging development, as well as causing distress.

The family court system in existence until now has been confusing, with the High Court, county courts and magistrates' courts all dealing with family matters. This was also inflexible and did not allow for judges and court staff and buildings to be used in the best way. This led to unnecessary delays when cases transferred between different jurisdictions.

I am very proud of the achievements made so far by those working in the family justice system to reverse this situation, so that the system works much better for children and protects children much better too.

From 22 April, family proceedings courts will no longer exist, while magistrates' courts and the new single County Court will no longer hear family proceedings. Instead, nearly all cases will be heard in the Family Court. The High Court will still hear family proceedings but only those specialist matters reserved exclusively to them.

The new single jurisdiction in England and Wales – the Family Court – will create a much simpler system, with all levels of judge being able to sit in the same building and greater flexibility for cases to be allocated to the right judge from the start. It will be easier for people using the courts too. They will simply submit their application to the Family Court in their area and it will be allocated to the right level of judge in the most suitable location. Four levels of Family Court judges working in one court – lay magistrates, District Judges, Circuit Judges, and High Court judges – will allow more effective and efficient use of judges' time and court staff and buildings.

April 22 is also the date when further crucial changes to the family justice system come into effect.  These are included in the Children and Families Act, and will affect both public and private law proceedings.

The key change for public law, intended to help cut the time which care and supervision cases take, is the introduction of a 26 week time limit. Figures show the average length of cases has fallen significantly from 56 weeks in 2011 to 33 weeks now.  Local Family Justice Boards, the courts service and the judiciary have all played their part, and the pilot Public Law Outline implemented in 2013 has given further impetus. This is a great achievement, made possible by a huge amount of work by many people working in the family justice system.

In private law, we want more people to resolve family disputes outside court. To address this we are encouraging separating couples to resolve their disputes through family mediation – earlier and with less conflict. We have changed the law so that people will have to consider mediation before litigating in financial and children disputes – unless they are for a special reason exempt.  We are further supporting this process through an uncapped budget for legal aid to cover both the initial meeting and the resulting mediation sessions for all those eligible.

Underpinning these changes is a whole raft of secondary legislation as well as significant changes to rules and practice directions. These cover everything from the allocation of business to appeals, and will help make sure that the system works as a coherent whole.

This year's changes mark a significant moment for the family justice system, when the proposals made by the family justice review are delivered. I want to make sure that I continue the job which David Norgrove has started so that we have from now on a family justice system which has the welfare of children at its heart.