Delays in children proceedings
Child law

Dorset courts pioneer new approach to resolving children disputes

Posted by
James Harbottle
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Dorset courts pioneer new approach to resolving children disputes Dorset courts pioneer new approach to resolving children disputes

On the 21st of February pilots were launched at family courts in Dorset and North Wales, to test a pioneering new approach to resolving disputes between parents over arrangements for their children.

The pilots, which the President of the Family Division has called ‘Pathfinder Courts’, will take place initially in Bournemouth and Weymouth in Dorset, and Caernarfon, Mold, Prestatyn and Wrexham in North Wales, for up to two years, before a full evaluation.

If the pilots are successful the new approach could form the basis for how these cases are dealt with in future, throughout England and Wales.


What is different about the new approach from Dorset courts?

The new approach has been designed for all court users, but with a particular focus on improving the experience of the family court and outcomes for survivors of domestic abuse, including children and litigants in person.

The new approach will include the following features:

  1. Improved information sharing – The new approach aims to improve information sharing between agencies such as the police, local authorities and the courts. This could, for example, include local domestic abuse professionals sharing risk assessments with the court to spare victims and parties in the case the trauma of having to unnecessarily repeat their experiences.Will couples who refuse to mediate be fined?
  2. More help for parents to resolve disputes out of court – A key element of the new approach is to keep children disputes out of court, if at all possible. Parents will therefore be ‘signposted’ towards: relationship advice; sources of other relevant advice and information; mediation; the availability of contact centres; obtaining legal advice; the use of parenting plans (in which parents can identify, agree and set out in writing arrangements for their children); available help for drug/alcohol abuse and mental health issues; and so on. Parents will be encouraged to think of court proceedings as the last resort, rather than their first port of call.
  3. A more investigative approach – At present family courts essentially adopt an ‘adversarial’ approach to cases, in the same way as the other civil courts. Under the adversarial approach each party or their lawyer sets out their case, and the judge has to decide the matter. It has long been thought by many that such an approach is not appropriate in family disputes. The pilot seeks to test a more investigative approach. This will work by allowing judges to review gathered information and request more documentation before a case gets to court, avoiding the circumstances of the case being debated in the courtroom, which can often exacerbate conflict between parents. The pilot will also encourage proceedings to be less adversarial so that more emphasis can be put into investigating and addressing allegations of domestic abuse and other harmful behaviours, rather than allowing confrontation in the courtroom to take place.
  4. The voice of the child – It has also long been argued by many that the courts do not pay enough attention to the wishes of the children concerned. The pilot aims to address this by boosting the voice of children at every stage of the process, ensuring that they are listened to, and that their views are taken into account when decisions are made about their futures. It will see children given more opportunity to explain how they feel and, following a court order, to say whether it is working for them.Children cases taking longer than at any time since current records began
  5. Lastly, a review stage – Between three months and a year after a ruling is made, in most cases the courts and the agencies involved will carry out a review to ensure decisions made are working well. This includes assessing whether court orders are being followed, and whether additional support is needed. This will be the first time that cases have been reviewed, other than when one of the parents takes the case back to court because the original order is not working. Reviews should hopefully make such cases rarer, and also give much needed information generally about how effective the courts are at resolving children disputes long-term.

It will, of course, be extremely interesting to see how all of this works in practice. But even if not all of the ideas are ultimately taken up nationwide, it seems certain that many of them will feature in the family justice system of the future.

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