Changes to the Children & Families Act 2014
Author: Anne-Marie Webber
The Children and Families Act 2014 introduces many changes, including:
1. The introduction of a single Family Court for England and Wales
In practice this will allow a single Court to deal with almost all family proceedings. The reality is that your case is still likely to be heard at your local County Court but the paperwork may be dealt with at a different Court. All new applications will be sent to the nearest Family Court for issuing and for clients local to this firm that will either be Guildford or Brighton.
2. The introduction of a legal requirement to attend a Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting (MIAM)
Prior to these changes there was an expectation that parties would attend a MIAM to assess whether mediation could be used as an alternative to issuing Court proceedings. There were, of course, exemptions from this expectation where, for example, there was a history of domestic violence.
These changes now turn that expectation into a legal requirement. This applies equally to all Applicants and Respondents, although initially the onus is on the Applicant to demonstrate that mediation has been attempted.
This requirement applies to Private Law Proceedings relating to children i.e. an application for Contact or Residence (now referred to as Child Arrangement Orders) and for proceedings relating to financial disputes.
Any application to the Court will need to be accompanied by confirmation from a mediator that a MIAM has been attended or (a) that a mediator’s exemption applies or (b) a claim by the Applicant that an exemption applies.
What if I don’t attend a MIAM?
As an Applicant, without any substantiated exemption the Court will not issue your application. If you are Respondent, and refuse without justification, then the mediator will confirm that refusal but the Court may still adjourn any hearings until such time as the parties have attended a MIAM.
The costs of attending the MIAM will vary depending on the mediation service and mediator you choose. Generally there is an expectation that the costs will be split equally between the parties.
Do the changes affect divorce proceedings?
Yes. The changes have removed the requirement for the Court to consider any arrangements for the children. It is, therefore, no longer necessary for a Statement of Arrangements to be completed and submitted to the Court with the Divorce Petition.
3. The Introduction of Child Arrangement Orders instead of Contact/Residence Orders
The Child Arrangement Programme now applies to any dispute between parents/families about where a child should live or arrangements relating to Contact. As the focus of these changes is the welfare of the children so many more independent resources are available to parents, including pro-forma Parenting Plans which can be downloaded from the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) website.
As mentioned above, the requirement to attend a MIAM applies to these types of disputes and so any application to the Court is only possible after the MIAM has been attended save for circumstances where an exemption applies.
Allocation of cases (“Gatekeeping”)
The application will be considered by a legal advisor or a District Judge who will be known as “The Gatekeeper”. This will be done within one working day and the matter will be allocated to an appropriate level of Judge. The case will also be referred to CAFCASS. The objective now is there should be continuity of judicial involvement i.e. the same Judge will deal with the case from the outset.
If the parties have not attended a MIAM this is the point at which an Order could be made for attendance.
The application will be considered as set out above. Thereafter, within 17 working days from the date of receipt of the application CAFCASS will provide a safeguarding letter/report to the Court.
At week 5 (or at the latest week 6) from the date of the application there will be a First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment at Court.
From this point onwards it is not possible to predict what may happen as this will depend on individual circumstances.
If you would like to discuss any of the above changes and how they may affect you, please contact a member of our Family Law team.