I have finally begun updating The Family Court without a Lawyer. Since its been four years since the last edition, preparation of this fourth edition is a somewhat chunkier task than was the third.
The reason for the gap between editions is threefold : in the beginning there wasn’t much need, but subsequently there has been a sort of repetitive cycle of me not having the time and energy and there being some major piece of law reform tantalisingly poised on the horizon, so ‘we might as well just wait for that before wasting time updating’. A few of those have turned out to be mirages, but we are now approaching the watering hole and it looks reasonably certain, that come the spring there will be two major new pieces of law actually in force, changing the landscape in ways that really do require a rewrite. Those are The Divorce, Dissolution Act 2020 (which introduces no fault divorce) and The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 (which, amongst other things, will prohibit direct questioning of one partner by the other where there are allegations of domestic abuse).
There is in fact, an accrual of other stuff over time that also needs to be incorporated – changes in legal aid eligibility, the shift in the court’s approach to domestic abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviour, the developments around vulnerable witnesses and special measures, the impact of the pandemic on hearing formats on delays and on the ‘deregulation’ of Child Arrangements as temporary covid practice directions enabled local practices to be piloted outside of the structures of the Child Arrangements Programme – even Brexit – all these need to be factored in.
There is inevitably still a lot of stuff that is floating in the ether and which I won’t be able to pin down or predict before going to print – stuff that is under review and might or might not change and which I will just have to flag in a chapter at the end. Private law procedure is in flux generally, and there are many suggestions for reform contained in the reports of the Private Law Working Group, the Harms report, the Family Solutions Group – and whilst there are assorted pilots on the horizon nobody really seems to know quite what they will entail, or even when they will start, let alone where we will be in two years time. I’m not even sure anyone knows who is actually in charge of family justice reform. I am on the Justice Working Party on Improving Access to Justice for Separating Families, which is also looking at these issues, so that means (or should mean) that I’m reasonably up to speed, but the truth is that I am finding it all a bit mind boggling – so what hope for litigants in person or those who want to help explain the landscape and options to them? The best we can hope for by the time of publication is, I suspect, to know what pilots are underway – but as to how they will go and whether they will be rolled out more widely, who knows. What I can say is that the fracturing of practice in different localities makes it really hard to produce useful and reliable information to help people know what to expect if make or are served with an application about child arrangements. What is happening in one city or region may look very different from how things are done in the neighbouring courts – and I don’t think that is going to improve any time soon.
If FCWAL has been useful to you I’d love to hear from you about what could be improved or added. There is a balance to be struck – a book untended to be a general guide can’t ever capture every eventuality, and if I tried it would detract from the aims of making the book easy to navigate – but there is always room for improvement, so suggestions are very much welcomed.