Plans to speed up family courts published by judge

Generic family It currently takes an average 13 months to complete care proceedings

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Proposals to change the culture of family courts and speed up cases in England and Wales have been published.

The plans include a single family court run by judges and magistrates to replace the current system where judges sit in multiple court buildings.

The recommendations by Mr Justice Ryder have been backed by the head of the judiciary, the Lord Chief Justice.

Family courts often deal with child custody cases following divorce or separation.

They also decide whether victims of child abuse or neglect should be taken into local authority care.

Currently family matters are dealt with by the "family division" of the High Court, by district judges in county courts or by specialist magistrate-led "family proceedings" courts.

Mr Justice Ryder's other recommendations include:

  • Less reliance on expert witnesses amid criticism in the report that they are "misused and overused"
  • Decisions and processes of the court better explained to the children at the centre of the family action
  • More training and guidance for judges to help them reach swifter decisions
  • The views of children will be heard and communicated to the court.

The recommedations do not need legislation, but will be introduced in parallel to proposed changes inthe government's Crime and Courts Bill and the Children and Families Bill.

Network of centres

The latest report comes after the Family Justice Review recommended that all childcare decisions be made within six months.

Mr Justice Ryder was appointed in November following the review, with a brief to make recommendations by the end of July after months of wide-ranging consultation.

Currently, the complexity of the system means it takes an average of 13 months for care proceedings to be completed.

Under the new plans, judges and magistrates presiding in the family courts will be located in one building where possible, and will not be allowed to be away from court for more than four weeks at a time to ensure better continuity.

Another way to ensure continuity will be a network of legal and administrative centres, to be known as local family court centres, which will be established as hubs to link the single family court together.

The system will be presided over by the President of the Family Division, and the Family Justice Council will be retained as an independent body to provide expert advice.

In his report, Mr Justice Ryder said the modernisation programme reflected a "consensus for change among judges and professionals of all disciplines" and is the law profession's agreed response to the Family Justice Review which was published in November 2011.

Mr Justice Ryder added: "The judicial modernisation programme is a plan which is designed to ensure that there is a robust framework in place to give effect to both the judiciary's proposals and legislative change.

"The many people who were involved in our discussions chose to contribute to them, they did not have to do so. I do not underestimate how important family justice is to them and the children and families with whom they are involved."

The Family Justice Review, conducted by former senior civil servant David Norgrove, criticised "shocking delays" in the family court system, and recommended that all childcare decisions be made within six months.

The Norgrove report added that family justice was under huge strain with about 20,000 children currently waiting for an outcome, and advised parents to use mediation to make arrangements for caring for their children and only turn to the courts as a last resort.

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