The Private Law Working Group has provided Family Law with draft guidance outlining the provisions of the forthcoming President's Practice Direction expected to be published towards the end of March.
The judicially-led cross-agency working group was set up to consider revisions to the President's Private Law Programme. The group was tasked with proposing methods of resolving private family law disputes in order to accommodate appropriate means of dispute resolution and the aims of the Cafcass Private Law Pathway.
The draft guidance, which has yet to be finally agreed by the Private Law Working Group, outlines new measures which will expedite court applications and the listing of the first hearing, sets out Cafcass safeguarding checks and provides details of a new conciliation process.
Under the revised Private Law Programme, Cafcass should carry out safeguarding investigations, such as determining if there are any issues of domestic violence, in the three to four weeks between the date of application and the first hearing. Should any safety issues emerge, Cafcass should send a note to the Court outlining the issues prior to the first hearing. Having spoken to each party alone, the Cafcass officer will then be expected to attend the first hearing.
At the first hearing the court will conduct a conciliation process with the assistance of the Cafcass officer and/or where practicable, a mediator. Where agreement is not reached, the court should adjourn for the parties to go to mediation, consider whether it has sufficient information to order attendance at contact activities or whether to adjourn for Cafcass to provide a report regarding suitability for contact activities.
Addressing the issue of current delays in Cafcass providing court reports, the revised Private Law Programme provides that where a report from a Cafcass officer is required, the Court will identify such issues as narrowly as practicable to enable Cafcass to prepare a short focused report without delay.
The revised Private Law Programme was trialled in six county courts and their associated family proceedings courts over the summer of 2009. Of cases referred to mediation at first hearing, and concluded, 72% resulted in agreement in full, or by narrowing issues considerably.
According to Deputy Chairman of the Private Law Working Group, His Honour Judge John Altman, the revised Private Law Programme should be fully implemented nationally by 1 October 2010.
His Honour Judge John Altman will be writing the leading comment in March's Family Law journal.