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As of today new legislation has been introduced providing for a number of changes which seek to ‘modernise’ family law.
The new changes are being introduced by the Children and Families Act 2014. So, what will this mean for those who may need the assistance of the family court in the future?
The most significant changes are:-
Before even contemplating a court application attendance at a MIAM (Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting) will now be compulsory for the person wishing to make such an application. The other party (the Respondent) is now also expected to attend. If a Respondent has refused to attend a MIAM the Court can order that they do so and can adjourn proceedings until this requirement has been satisfied.
A MIAM is a meeting with a trained mediator to see whether mediation will be suitable for the parties before they go to court. Many couples find mediation useful to help them agree on the arrangements for their children particularly where there is a real desire to avoid court proceedings.
There will no longer be ‘Contact’ (previously known as Access) or ‘Residence’ (often referred to as child custody) orders in proceedings regarding children. Instead these orders are replaced by a Child Arrangements Order. This type of order will regulate arrangements relating to any of the following:-
The rationale behind the new order is “to move away from loaded terms such as residence and contact which have themselves become a source of contention between parents, to bring greater focus on practical issues of the day to day care of the child.” [Family Justice Review]. In my mind, the public perception is still to think of ‘child custody’ and this is what many clients will ask about when first contacting us.
It seems that the intention behind the reform is to ensure that both parents are involved in the upbringing of their children and agree on the time that they spend with each parent. They will be encouraged to ‘agree’ arrangements rather than a Judge imposing an order upon them.
I certainly welcome the compulsory mediation assessment as I believe it will promote a more trusting relationship between parents and ensure they focus on the child’s best interests. It goes without saying that it is much better for a child if his or her parents can agree things together and not use their child as a tool with which to punish the other.
I am not so confident that a Child Arrangements Order will do all that is envisaged. On the face of it it appears that it is just different label. A Child Arrangements order is still likely to state with whom a child is to live (akin to residence and child custody) and with whom the child is to spend time (akin to contact and access). This doesn’t seem to me to be any sort of real progress and I have concerns that parents may still view themselves as winners and losers in some cases.