Family court shake up comes into force

Government's family justice reforms impose 26-week time limit and restrictions on expert witnesses in care proceedings

Major changes designed to speed up care proceedings in England and Wales came into force today.

The reforms include a 26-week time limit on proceedings and the creation of a single family court to replace the three tiers of courts that used to handle family justice cases.

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changes effective from today include only allowing expert witnesses to be called in cases when necessary for a just outcome and the introduction of child arrangement orders to encourage separating parents to focus on their children’s interests rather than their own.

In addition, families will be required to attend family mediation meetings in private law cases.

Although most care proceedings will be subject to the 26-week time limit, the court can extend the deadline by up to eight weeks if they consider it necessary to resolve cases “justly”.

Children and families minister Edward Timpson said: “The new 26-week time limit will reduce unnecessary delays by ensuring that judges focus on the facts without getting caught up in unnecessary evidence or bureaucracy.

“These reforms will mean a swifter system where children’s best interests are placed – where they rightly should be – at the heart of decision making.”

Family justice minister Simon Hughes said: “For too long children have suffered from excessive delays and confrontational court battles. These reforms mark a significant moment for the family justice system.”

Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, said: “Taken as a whole, these reforms amount to a revolution.”

Tom Rahilly, head of looked-after children at the NSPCC, warned there must be sufficient flexibility in proceedings to ensure they are always conducted in the child’s best interests. 

“While the desire is to ensure that children in care proceedings are not subject to unnecessary delay, we know that improving these processes is not enough. We must also improve the quality of support that children and families receive. It is vital that families receive early support to help address problems and prevent abuse or neglect,” Rahilly said.

He continued: “Improvements to adoption are of course welcome, but we must ensure improved support for all options for looked-after children, whether they are adopted, remain in care, or return home from care.”

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