UK Family Law Reform

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Family courts out of touch says judge

A senior family judge has attacked the present system of family courts run
by a “self-selecting great and good and a professional judiciary” as out of
tune with society.

Mr Justice Ryder, the most senior family judge on the northern circuit and a
leading reformer, has called for an overhaul to make family courts open and
in touch with the public.

The judge, who sits on a committee advising the Lord Chancellor in cases
involving children in care, said: “We are at a crossroads in family

Despite reforms in recent years, including the emergence of a unified family
court embracing magistrates and judges, the system had never faced more
critical comment, he said.Courts lacked capacity to “deal with an
ever-increasing volume of the most serious and complex cases in a timely
fashion” and as a consequence many medium-risk cases were downgraded “as if
we haven't got time for them”.

In addition case law used by courts means that cases where children were at
most risk required the most difficult standard of proof, “undermining the
child protection imperative”, he said.

The judge's comments, which have gone to Resolution, the family solicitors'
organisation, and the Family Law Bar Association, will have support among a
number of judges who are concerned at the continuing criticisms of family

Mr Justice Ryder said that the family courts system needed to lay itself
open to scrutiny which, he said, was necessary for the public's reassurance
and satisfaction. “Our judgments should be given in public and anonymised
where necessary,” he said.

He urged the creation of a new “family court diversion scheme” and the
adoption of a continental-style model where local community tribunals act as
a gateway for family justice and deal with cases at an early stage, outside
the criminal or civil courts.

The judge, who outlined his proposals in a recent speech to mark the 25th
anniversary of Family Law Service, which is provided by the legal publishers
LexisNexis Butterworths, also called for other reforms. He said that legal
aid would only be granted for cases, other than where a child had urgently
to be removed from home, where people had first gone to a panel of lay
people chaired by a lawyer. Its decisions would be binding, subject to

He pointed to Guernsey, where he has been involved in a scheme that involves
decriminalising under-12s. Youth justice and family breakdown cases have
been transferred to a specialist interdisciplinary panel that identifies
solutions to avoid a child being removed from home.

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