Exciting times in Family Law - updates to the Family Procedure Rules

Those of us in the family law world are seeing a lot of excitement around the latest updates to the Family Procedure Rules which govern most court cases dealing with aspects of family life.

As of 29th April 2024, there is to be an even greater focus on NCDR options – that is, Non Court Dispute Resolution – before, during and even after people will be able to access the Family court for determinations of their cases. Court cases can be paused if the judge decides the case is suitable for NCDR to be explored. People could face criticism by the Court and financial penalties if they are considered to have refused, unreasonably, to try some type of NCDR instead of coming to court too.

NCDR, as we are now calling it, isn’t actually new. In England and Wales family mediation has been around since the 1970s, collaborative law since 2003 and arbitration since 2012. We also have options including “private” hearings and “early neutral evaluation” to help people sort out their differences outside the Court structure, although supported by being then able to shore it all up with a court order, if needed, at the end.

However, how many of these, and lots of other options to support families in breakdown, do the general public know about and make use of? It seems the answer has been “not enough” to date hence the renewed push from the government to encourage people out of the Court system and into sorting things out between themselves with the right support and advice.

Not all Family lawyers are hell-bent on “seeing you in court” and raising the temperature of a family breakdown further just to line the pockets of their firms. We get bad press a lot of the time, but most Family law specialist lawyers are all about the out of court resolution wherever possible and over 6000 of us in England & Wales are also members of Resolution and specifically agree, as part of our membership to try our best not to make things worse but instead to focus on sensible outcomes.

Family lawyers should advise their clients about the full range of non-court options available to them so that their client can make an informed choice about their case. Most do give that advice, most will suggest that needing to involve the court to make the decisions should really be an absolute last resort.

Other services, such as mediators, should also be making clients aware of the full range of options available too. It is not a case of one-size-fits-all.

Mediation, arbitration, early neutral evaluation, and private court hearings can work independently and together under the same NCDR umbrella – which is best supported with proper, early and ongoing legal advice from qualified advisors such as the Geldards Family team.

There are also a whole host of other services, professionals and programmes geared up to support families breaking down to achieve an outcome, preferably by agreement over a Court decision.

There has been an effort to encourage people to make use of family mediation, especially when discussing arrangements for children, through the government voucher scheme, offering up to £500 towards the cost of the joint sessions of mediation (if the main topic is children). This does exclude people who do not have children and wish to discuss financial matters though.

Despite the voucher scheme, the Law Gazette recently reported that in 2023 in 39% of “private law” (children-related issues between family members) neither person in the court case was legally represented. The problem here is that those people in court might not have really had chance to fully explore all of the other options available to them before they asked the Court to get involved.

It is also a reality that family law is full of emotions. It is specifically about relationships between adults and between children and adults. None of us are at our levelheaded best when we are upset or angry which means we might not always put our best ideas forward either. This is where experienced, objective and empathetic lawyers, like the whole team at Geldards, come to the fore in supporting you and your family. We want you to support you in making decisions that work for you, your family now and in the future.

We also are fortunate to have lawyers in our team who are cross-qualified to offer services in mediation, arbitration, collaborative law as well as private court hearing determinations and early neutral evaluations.

The government has also pledged funding to an early legal advice pilot to start in summer 2024, which is designed to enable families to get that initial legal advice that might prevent them from simply applying straight to the Court.

At Geldards we certainly take the view that the good quality legal advice we offer all of our clients can be crucial to how their matters might then be resolved. There is also no doubt that legal advice before and alongside any NCDR option is useful because it is far easier to negotiate an agreed outcome if you both know what you are able to ask for and achieve legally speaking.

Despite this very clear push for NCDR to be taken up at a much higher rate, there will always be some cases that simply aren’t suitable for NCDR – this may be where there is a genuine emergency such as a child being removed from the country without agreement of parents or where the domestic abuse has been at a level that would make most NCDR unworkable.  Your team at Geldards will always listen to you about your concerns and discuss them with you in order to advise you clearly about options for you.

It is really important to know that once you get the Court involved, you risk a decision being made about your life or your child’s life that you are not in control of and may not like. So, if there are any ways of reaching an agreement with the other person, let Geldards help you find them.

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