Sandra Davis, head of the family department at Mishcon de Reya, explains that the FRCs will begin a process of de-coupling financial proceedings from the divorce process, and recognise the specialised and complex nature of financial dispute cases.
In contrast to financial disputes, the president of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, notes that divorce as a process is largely administrative with, in theory, limited judicial involvement. Ultimately, a single specialist court could deal with all family money claims under a common set of rules and procedures.
Davis believes this change will benefit both individuals who are seeking a simple divorce, by freeing up time in the overburdened Family Court, and those with more complex cases which involve a financial dispute, because they will benefit from access to specialist judges.
Magnus Mill, partner at Alexiou Fisher Philipps, says these specialist judges are also likely to improve the predictability of outcome in such cases. Mill says:
‘Greater predictability should make it easier to settle cases in advance, as if the parties can know with reasonable certainty what a court will decide anyway, they are more likely to save money and settle earlier.’
Impact on practitionersMill notes that, in London, the Central Family Court is already home to the specialist Financial Remedies Unit. Therefore, he believes the change in process will not be as substantial as in other areas.
For areas outside of London, Mill suggests this will potentially represent a substantial change:
‘Children cases have been subject for some time to a specific allocation and gate-keeping procedure, designed to ensure each case is heard at the appropriate level, and this pilot seeks to provide something similar for financial cases.’
Sandra Davis says anything that improves the user’s experience will be welcomed by practitioners:
‘If it results in more dedicated attention for complex financial cases, that change is a good thing.’
Practical and procedural difficulties
As with all systems, Davis believes there will inevitably be practical and procedural difficulties that will need to be addressed in the pilots, including:
the location of regional hubs and hearing centres
how cases will be allocated to hearing centres
whether allocations are suitable for individual cases
‘There could also be some initial teething problems in co-ordinating work between the Regional Divorce Centres and Regional Financial Hearing Centres.’
Magnus Mill suggests some practitioners may be wary about whether this process will lead to further court closes.
In the longer term, the stated intention is to move to fully digitised court files and perhaps court bundles. Mill says practitioners will watch with interest to see how this digitisation is progressed. He concludes:
‘A properly implemented and modern digitised court system is likely to be of benefits to lawyers, their clients and litigants-in-person, but only if it is properly funded and well-constructed.’