The government is to launch a pilot of early legal advice for separating couples to judge what impact it could have to speed up a resolution.
However, it has dropped plans to require parties to mediate before they can apply to the court.
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) today announced the outcome of a consultation last year on earlier resolution of private family law arrangements.
More than 60,000 private law children and contested finance cases went through the family courts in 2022.
The pilot will be designed for parents/carers facing challenges when agreeing their child arrangements and “seek to demonstrate the benefits of high-quality legal advice for families looking to resolve their issues through the courts and, where court is deemed necessary, better prepare them for the court process”.
The MoJ said: “Although we did not ask a specific question about the role of legal advice, many respondents to our consultation considered that the lack of free, publicly funded, family law legal advice was a barrier to early dispute resolution.
“Respondents told us that providing funded access to early legal advice would improve the information available to parents/carers, allowing them to make better informed decisions about their dispute, and potentially leading to improved outcomes for parents/carers and their children.”
The MoJ recognised “the potential benefits” of publicly funded early legal advice but noted “the lack of sufficient data” to prove what impact it could have – this is what the pilot would aim to deliver.
“We plan to launch the pilot in specific regions in England and Wales by summer 2024. Our goal is to collaborate closely with stakeholders in the legal and advice sectors to design a pilot that effectively assists participating families in resolving their disputes and enables us to collect crucial evidence on the role of legal advice in dispute resolution.”
Compulsory mediation has been ditched over concerns that proposed safeguards to protect domestic abuse victims may not go far enough.
However, the MoJ said the role of mediators would be bolstered through allowing them to apply for advanced Disclosure and Barring Service checks and work with the Family Mediation Council to improve training on domestic abuse.
This would help mediators develop a screening tool – such as a questionnaire – to better identify victims at the earliest opportunity.
There will also be a new online portal for parents, signposting them to relevant support services, and better offline information at Family Hubs.
The MoJ said that, alongside the mediation voucher scheme which has so far helped nearly 25,000 families, “more couples can resolve their issues without ever reaching court”.
For those who do end up going to court, the MoJ is to extend a pilot in North Wales and Dorset, aimed at reducing conflict, to the family courts in Birmingham and South-East Wales, ahead of a national roll out.
The model seeks to improve information sharing between agencies like the police and local authorities so victims avoid retelling traumatic experiences.
It also allows judges to review more documents before a case gets to court, to prevent further conflict in the courtroom, and gives children extra opportunities to express their views.
Lord Chancellor and justice secretary Alex Chalk said: “There is no one-size-fits-all approach for separating families, which is why we’re ensuring people have access to early legal advice and mediation to resolve disputes as early as possible.
“These reforms will help spare thousands of children the long-term harm of lengthy, combative courtroom conflict.”
The government has also pledged to work alongside the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass) to help more families undertake parenting programmes early in the process, rather than by court order.
Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto said: “We are already working alongside our partners in the family justice system to create a pathfinder in Birmingham and we support the government’s intention to encourage more families to find alternative resolutions and to prioritise what is in their children’s best interests without the need for lengthy family court proceedings.”
Sir Andrew McFarlane, ppesident of the Family Division, said: “If implemented, the range of initiatives published today are likely to be of genuine benefit in assisting many separating parents to resolve disputes over the care of their children promptly and without going to the Family Court.
“The primary responsibility for promoting the welfare of a child is borne by the child’s parents and not by magistrates or judges; the court should be the last place of resort, rather than the first port of call.”