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The changing family law practice

Date:18 NOV 2019

The Family Justice system is now subject to fundamental and far-reaching change with both public and private law consultations underway with regards to Children law with a clear emphasis on private law cases being kept or pushed out of the court system. The same trend can be expected in respect of finance cases [aided by the Big Data project]. Family structures are changing with fewer marriages, less divorce and cohabitation on the rise. The makeup of families is also changing and will need different solutions when they break down.

Alongside the reforms, the government digital delivery programme has already seen the introduction of the online divorce application and by the end of this year, it will be possible to complete an uncontested divorce procedure from start to finish online.  So far, 35,000 people have opted to use the online application, in fact, 55% of all divorce petitions issued by litigants in person during the past 10 months.  The error rate on online petitions is 0.4% in stark contrast to the 40% error rate in paper petitions.  84% of those using the online process have said they were satisfied with the process.  Generally, technology is growing in sophistication and availability and family law practitioners will need to think carefully about how technologies may affect their business and the expectations clients may have. Probably, the most important aspect of change overall is the way in which our potential clients are changing too, we know that less of them are seeking legal advice, that they are attempting to do things for themselves but in doing so, may end up in already overloaded Courts because they can’t find or don’t know about alternatives.  Clients are demanding services delivered in different ways, they expect that our response will be compatible with other services they commonly use, whether that is electronically or  in the way we provide face to face services. We have an opportunity to lead the way by enabling Dispute Resolution specialists to provide the best services they can for their clients.

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But are there barriers that currently prevent Resolution and other Dispute Resolution professionals from supporting clients in new ways? We are bound by standards set by external bodies. To some degree, we have also created structures and set standards for ourselves that might stifle innovation, limiting the development of best practice and most importantly, are not want our clients expect, want or need.

 The SRA will be introducing new and simpler regulation for solicitors later this year with the aim of regulation being ‘up to date and fit for purpose, providing public protection without hampering growth and innovation’.  It will mean much greater opportunity to work in new and innovative ways.  For a long time, we have been a slave to or have been shielded by overly complicated rules and regulation. Not only has regulation been a frustration to us, it is an immense frustration for clients, they aren’t interested in how regulation affects us, but they are irritated when it affects them and the services they want or hoped for.

Dispute Resolution practice continues to develop but the barriers to getting involved and using the different types of Dispute Resolution process available mean that these processes could become even more sub-divided, ‘niche’ and less connected to our everyday practice. Yet Dispute Resolution and solution seeking skills are the very skills that the best family professionals use or will need to use.

David Emmerson and Angela Lake-Carroll received considerable praise at the Northern Lights conference 2019 for the thought provoking keynote speech upon which this article is based. 

This article was first published on the Anthony Gold website, and is reproduced with permission.