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Plans to 'open' family courts welcomed

12 June 2006

Family lawyers have given their support to a report by the Constitutional Affairs Committee (CAC) that proposes compulsory mediation for family disputes and greater transparency in the family courts.

Resolution chair Andrew Greensmith said both proposals should be “generally applauded” and encouraged the Government to include the measures in its consultation paper on changes to the family court system, expected later this month.

“We discussed the opening up of the family courts at great length at our AGM meeting this year and I can tell you that as a profession family lawyers are in support of it,” Greensmith told Solicitors Journal.

“Subject to adequate precautions, such as the identity of children being protected, we would welcome transparency at all levels.”

On the issue of compulsory mediation Greensmith said Resolution was supportive of “any early intervention that helps ease the process” of families breaking up and the welfare of children being decided.

“You have to make the initial consultation compulsory or it can be difficult to get people to engage in mediation” he said.

The CAC had concluded that: “There is no reason why [a compulsory preliminary meeting with a mediator] is acceptable for those seeking legal aid, but not for other couples.”

Following the publication of the report, CAC chair Alan Beith MP, said: “By their very nature, the cases the family court handles are emotive and contentious. Ideally, many more cases would be resolved through mediation. To that end we would like to see everyone at least meet with a mediator and see if the process could work for them.

“If a case must go to court though, it would go a long way towards dispelling accusations of bias and restoring public confidence in the system if the process was open—with the necessary reporting restrictions in place to protect the child.”

Lack of finances was also blamed for the ongoing delays in the family courts. “It seems plain the funding difficulties are holding back the judiciary from improving the service that it can offer,” concluded the report.

The CAC said the DCA needed to “provide sufficient legal advisers, ensure that any vacancies continue to be filled and remedy the lack of additional District Judges (Magistrates Court) working full time on family cases”.

Shortage of court staff was picked up on by northern law firm Ricksons this week, who said that it would inevitably lead to an increase in the use of mediation.

Ricksons' litigation partner Simon Deyner said: ““Court staff will be confronted with working harder to maintain levels of efficiency or else litigants will be forced to adapt to an inferior system where adjournments and backlogs become commonplace. Consequently, it will be incumbent upon us as lawyers to deal with court matters expeditiously as always, so as to avoid clients facing any additional and unnecessary delays. Litigants themselves will inevitably be more reluctant to litigate, and will prefer to settle without court proceedings, or to deal with any dispute through ADR where possible.”

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