On the road again: divorce in the 21st century

family law

Financial Remedy Courts to be introduced

These days I usually try not to fall for the hackneyed device of using song titles for titles of blog posts, but the old song by Canned Heat just didn’t leave my mind when I was considering the President’s circular on Financial Remedy Courts, that was published last Friday. Divorce in the twenty-first century really could involve parties regularly taking to the road to deal with each aspect of the case.

For those who haven’t seen it, in the circular the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby announces that the long-awaited ‘financial remedy courts’ will be piloted in three areas: London, the West Midlands and South-East Wales. The President hopes that the pilots will begin next February and says he envisages that further pilots will follow quite shortly, on a rolling programme.

The idea of ‘financial remedy courts’ has been around for some while. The President made his support for the idea clear in his 17th View from the President’s Chambers, as I discussed in this post back in May. To recap, the courts are designed to specialise in, you’ve guessed it, financial remedy cases. As the President explains in his circular, there will be a number of regional hubs around the country. Financial remedy hearings will be conducted by specialist judges who will have ‘real experience / expertise in financial remedy work’, either at the hub or at one of a number of Financial Remedies Hearing Centres within the hub area. Initially, the courts will just deal with ancillary relief cases (i.e. financial remedy applications within divorce/civil partnership dissolution/nullity/judicial separation proceedings), but the President says that in due course this will be extended to all financial remedy cases dealt with in the Family Court or Family Division, for example applications for financial provision for children under Schedule 1 of the Children Act.

So what are to be the benefits of financial remedy courts? Well, as I indicated in my previous post, I think the primary idea is that the courts will bring the benefit of specialisation. No longer will financial remedy case be dealt with by judges who never practised family law, or who only ‘tinkered’ in it. That must be a good thing.

The other big idea is probably to do with economics, as with so many things these days. A court having a single set of rules, forms and procedures will no doubt bring with it efficiencies that will lead to precious savings for the dwindling Ministry of Justice budget.

But there is a downside.

As regular readers will be aware, back in 2015 regional divorce centres were introduced with the result that, rather than issuing their divorce in their local court, a petitioner now has to issue it in the divorce centre for their region, which may be a hundred or more miles away. Soon they will need to issue any financial remedy application in their regional financial remedy hub, which may or may not be their local court. Meanwhile, they will have to issue any other application, for example in relation to arrangements for children, or seeking a domestic violence remedy, in their local family court.

Unless I’ve missed something, all of this could mean that proceedings connected with a divorce could in future take place at up to four different locations. Now, I realise that it shouldn’t be necessary for parties to attend their divorce centre (although they may wish to do so – I hear that contacting some centre by telephone can be a lengthy and frustrating process), but even so they will have to attend hearings for other matters, possibly at different locations, and they may even have to attend three locations, if the application has to be issued in the hub, rather than the hearing centre.

And those locations may not be that convenient for some. The President indicated in his circular that there will typically be two financial remedy hubs in each of the six court circuits of England and Wales. He does not say how many hearing centres will be in each hub, but there will need to be quite a few if parties are not to have to travel a long way to a hearing (the South Eastern circuit, for example, covers a huge area from Kent and East Anglia in the east, to West Sussex and Oxfordshire in the west).

The President says that more hubs may be needed where there is a larger population, but if the experience of divorce centres is anything to go by, I fear that economics may dictate that we end up with an insufficient number of hubs. If that happens, then everyone using the courts will have to get used to things happening even more slowly than they do now.

Hopefully, however, my fears will be unfounded, and the new courts will bring real improvements to the system. However, I am still glad that I am no longer practising, as if I was I would no doubt hanker for the good old simpler times when everything was dealt with under one roof.

You can read the President’s circular here.

Photo by Harrison Farr via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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