Family Court changes post 31 March 2014

Family Court changes post 31 March 2014

On 31 March 2014, how the Family Court deals with Care of Children Act matters changed dramatically.  Now, more than ever, the focus is on parties resolving matters between themselves if the situation is non-urgent.

For example, if you and your partner separated and you could not agree on how care and contact of the children would look, it was possible before 31 March 2014 that you could instruct a family lawyer and they would apply for a Parenting Order.  This is now not the case.  Now parties are expected to go through the “Parenting Through Separation Course and Family Dispute Resolution” process, with the intention of resolving the issue without ever darkening the door of the Family Court.  “Parenting Through Separation” has been around for a long time, but only now has it become mandatory before any application can be made to the Family Court.

Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) is another new addition to the Family Court resolution process.  It is essentially mediation pre-Court.  Expert mediators will meet with the parties and assist them to move towards coming to a resolution themselves.

In most situations now, if you have not taken part in “Parenting Through Separation and Family Dispute Resolution” process you cannot apply to the Family Court for a Parenting Order.  A new nationwide database records who has taken part in this process, so that this can be monitored if applications are made to the Family Court.

Another big change is the change to the right of people to be represented in the Family Court.  Unless your matter is urgent, or tied in with another case, most people do not have the automatic right to have a lawyer act for them in the Family Court.  This means that most parties will be filing their applications themselves and accessing the early stages of the Court process without a lawyer.  At a later point, if the matter is moving towards settlement or hearing, the Court can direct that the parties have lawyers.

So how do people get legal advice and assistance on these matters? The availability of Legal Aid has been reduced for Care of Children Act matters.  What is in place now is the Family Legal Advice Service (FLAS).  FLAS allows those who cannot pay for a lawyer privately a set amount of legal advice and assistance over a 12 month period.  A lawyer providing advice under FLAS can provide initial advice, explaining the new Family Court system and providing suggestions as how to resolve the matter.  If the matter does not resolve and applications need to be drafted, the lawyer can also assist by drafting the documents.  However, they cannot file the documents, nor can they act as your lawyer at this time.  If later on the Court states that the parties can have lawyers, that lawyer can act for you (either privately or under legal aid).  FLAS is available at any time during the legal process, however we suggest you obtain legal advice as soon as is possible.  Your situation may mean a different process should be followed.

We are accredited FLAS providers.  The changes are complicated and legal assistance and advice will still be necessary for most people.

Please feel free to contact a member of our Family Team to discuss these matters further. The Ministry of Justice – Family Justice website outlines the changes in further detail.