Children Arrangements Programme : changes to the courts approach
The landscape of private law children disputes is imminently set to change. Changes in legal aid have resulted in a significant increase in the number of litigants in person appearing before the court and a significant reduction in referrals to mediation. Now, draft Child Arrangements Programme, together with the Children and Families Bill 2013, has been designed to create a more accessible system with a greater emphasis on the pre-proceedings stage and alternative dispute resolution. It is intended to operate within the new model for justice in the unified Family Court which comes into existence officially in April 2014, and will replace the Pre-Application Protocol (PD3A) and the Private Law Programme (PD12B).
in essence unless the private law children matters falls within the emergency / urgent category all parties will be encouraged to try and resolve matters direct with the assistance of the government self help websites. This will signpost such parties to Mediation. Every Applicant must attend a MIAMS meet before proceedings can be issued in court. If the matter is deemed not appropriate for mediation it is then open for the Applicant to issue proceedings. Again it must be noted that legal aid is not available for legal representation in court or within the court process unless the matter falls within one of the few exceptions.
Once proceedings are issued a copy of the application will be placed before a gatekeeping judge for directions. The judge can again at this stage direct the parties attend Mediation before it is listed for a hearing.
The First Hearing is to be listed within 5-6 weeks. This hearing will be to determine whether or not a resolution can be attained with the assistance of the judge / justices or if the matter should be referred to mediation. If mediation is not appropriate then directions will be give to manage the progress of the case with a view to adjudication by the courts.
As can be seen greater emphasis is being given to Dispute Resolution and in particular Mediation. The Children Arrangements Programme arises out of considerable research and consultation upon the impact of parental conflict on children and adherence to court orders. This revealing that Arrangements reached between parents themselves are more likely to work more long term than court imposed arrangements. However Mediation and other forms of Dispute Resolution are not suitable for everyone. It is however hoped and anticipated the new regime will increase awareness to the public of the different forms of dispute resolution so as to make their own choices as to how they wish proceed. Legal Aid is still of course available for Mediation and consequently an incentive to consider this as a preferred option.