Family lawyers have welcomed last week’s publication of the long-awaited Family Procedure Rules 2010, which will come into force on 6 April.
The new code, published by the Ministry of Justice, provides a single set of rules for proceedings in the magistrates’ court, county court and High Court, along the model of the Civil Procedure Rules.
It comprises nearly 300 pages of statutory instrument, intended to provide one set of simple and simply expressed rules of court for family proceedings, to replace the disparate body of unconsolidated rules and guidance that has been used in different types of proceedings.
The rules will be supplemented by practice directions that have yet to be published.
Christina Blacklaws, Law Society council member for child care, called the publication of the code a ‘hugely significant development’.
However, she noted that the rules introduce an ‘overriding objective’ for the courts to deal justly with cases. Since the introduction of the Children Act 1989, the welfare of the child has been the paramount consideration of the court, but Blacklaws cautioned that the considerations in the overriding objective, which include saving expense, could lead to a different approach.
She also questioned whether the rules, which oblige the court to consider the use of alternative dispute resolution at every stage, would change the judicial approach to ADR, especially mediation.
David Woodward, partner and head of the family team at TLT in Bristol, also welcomed the rules, which he predicted could pave the way for a unified family court.
He said: ‘This would remove the current layers of courts and benefit clients, who are not interested in historic divisions between the judiciary.’
Part of the new overriding objective of the rules is to ensure that parties are on an equal footing. But with the demise of legal aid, Woodward questioned how this would be achieved, particularly as the rules make no provision for an interim lump sum to fund legal fees.
‘Without funds, many clients will be unable to get advice and representation, which will increase the number of litigants in person who are already causing log jams in the courts,’ he said.