With April Showers comes a single Family Court

Wed, 23 Apr 2014

The 22nd April 2014 saw the coming into being of the Family Court. Whilst many will have assumed that common sense would have long ago provided for such a Court it has taken The Crime and Courts Act 2013 to do away with the complicated multi-tier system of courts that until now dealt with all family matters.[1]

The single family court is intended to create a much simpler system, the aim being that judges of all levels of seniority will be able to sit in the same building and cases can be allocated to the most appropriate Judge on the point of issue.

This more user friendly approach is not just aimed at practitioners. The new Court framework will be easier for individual acting on their own behalf. When issuing an application an individual 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. This means you no longer have to work out whether to make your application to the county court or magistrates' court, you make your application to the Family Court.

There will be four levels of Family Court judges working in the one court with each level of judiciary reflecting the varying complexity of cases. Lay Magistrates, District Judges, Circuit Judges, and High Court judges will be housed in the same Court Building. This new structure should allow a more effective and efficient use of judges' time.

The single family court will deal with all family matters save for Wardship and cases of international abduction. These cases will remain the preserve of the High Court, albeit with specialist Judges trained in family law.

On the whole the changes have not meant the construction of new Court buildings. The new Court usually be situated at the county and magistrates' courts buildings where family cases are already heard. Her Majesty Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) website will soon have a list identifying which is your local Designated Family Centre and where the Court sits in your area.

Each Designated Family Centre will have at least one Designated Family Judge who will be responsible for the administrative running of the Family Court. 

More Judges are going to be eligible to hear family cases there will be a ‘gatekeeping team’ at each Family Court who will determine to which level of Judge a particular case will be allocated (a Lay Magistrate, a District Judges, a Circuit Judges or a High Court judge)[2].

The Distribution of Business rules[3]set out what kind of Judge should deal with what the type of proceedings. Schedule 1 to the rules provides a useful allocation table which sets out the type of proceedings in the left hand column and the level of judge on the right. 

There is also a Schedule setting out what kind of order can and cannot be granted by certain levels of judge.

Once the gatekeeping team have made their allocation decision they will issue standard directions. This is to ensure that cases are moved forward as quickly as possible and reduces the number of Court hearings required by a particular case. 

If you're not happy with the level of judge a case has been allocated to and this has been done without a hearing you can request the court to reconsider allocation.[4]  A party to proceedings can make a request to reallocate at any hearing where they first have notice of the allocation or in writing no later than 2 days before the first hearing.  When the party makes the request they have to notify the other parties too.

If the case is particular complex it can be allocated to a High Court Judge sitting in the Family Court (the most senior level of trial Judge) but this will only be permitted by order of a judge of the High Court[5]

If you do not want a case to be heard in your local area or indeed want a case you are involved in moved to your local area a case can be transferred from one Designated Family Judge area to another. This application is called a Part 18 application.[6]

A new appeal structure has been created and in simple terms if you wish to appeal a decision you apply to the next level of Judge within the Family Court unless your case raises an a important point or principle of practice in which case a High Court Judge will hear the appeal in the Family Court.[7]

In summary the new appeal structure is as follows[8]:-

(a) A decision made by a bench of lay magistrates or a lay justice will mean the  appeal is to a circuit judge or a judge of High Court judge level sitting in the Family Court if the appeal raises an a important point or principle of practice and you do not have to ask permission to appeal.

(b) A decision made by a district judge will usually be appealed to a circuit judge or a judge of High Court judge level sitting in the Family Court if the appeal raises an a important point or principle of practice (You do need to ask the Court’s permission to appeal from a District Judge).

(c) A decision made by a District Judge sitting in the Principal Registry of the Family Division (now the Central Family Court) in proceedings for a financial remedy require any appeal to be made to a judge of High Court judge level sitting in the Family Court (again you need permission of the Court).

(e) A decision made by a judge of circuit judge level requires that you appeal to Court of Appeal and the Court’s permission is required.

(g) If you wish to appeal the decision of a judge of High Court level the appeal is to the Court of Appeal and you must obtain the Court’s permission.

If a Judge makes a decision about how the case should be run (what are called Case management decisions) there are special rules that apply to any appeal. If you want to appeal that kind of decision your application (what is referred to as the appellant's notice) must be filed within 7 days.[9] Again this short time limit is designed to ensure that cases move as quickly as possible and avoid delay for all concerned.

If you are involved in proceedings that were started before 22 April 2014 the new rules apply and the proceedings will continue in the Family Court.  However, the court can continue to apply the old rules rather than apply the new rules if that is necessary to ensure that the proceedings are dealt with fairly.

The new rules are designed to modernise and simplify the workings of the Courts that deal with all kinds of family cases. The creation of the Family Court is not the only change to how family justice is dispensed. Other changes to how private (disputes between family members) and public (disputes involving social services) family law cases are dealt with have also come into effect and these are also designed to avoid delay to decision making and the costs of the process to all involved.

As more and more people are either representing themselves or taking advantage of new kinds of representation (such as direct access) in an effort to keep costs to a minimum the changes are to be welcomed even if they may take a little getting used.

Written by Stefano Nuvoloni

[1] Section 14 of the Crime and Families Act 2013 brings into existence the single family court and is supplemented by the Crime and Courts Act 2013 (Family Court: Consequential Provision) (No 2) Order 2014.

[2] Section 31D of the MFPA 1984 determines which level of judge the case is allocated to by the ‘gatekeeping team'. 

[3] The rules are the Family Court (Composition and Distribution of Business) Rules 2014.

[4] The new FPR 2010, r 29.19

[5] MFPA 1984, s 31I  and the new FPR 2010, r 29.17 and PD29C

[6] see the new Family Proceedings Rules 2010, r 29.18

[7] Appeals from the Family Court are covered by s 31K(1) and Access to Justice Act (Destination of Appeals) (Family Proceedings) Order 2014/602.

[8] Part 30 and PD30A of the Family proceedings Rules have been amended to reflect the above and include a handy table.

[9] see Family Proceedings Rules 2010 r 30.4

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