Family courts not equipped to deal with modern families, suggests tops judge

Sir James Munby, the President of the Family Division, hopes family courts will soon become a “one-stop shop” for all of a family’s needs.

Speaking at Liverpool University, the top judge said families have taken on a new image and suggested that the current system is not fit for purpose.

“Family law must adapt itself to these realities. It has, and it does, though the pace of the necessary change has, for much of the time, been maddeningly slow,” he said, referring to today’s vast mix of cultures and family setups.

“In contemporary Britain the family takes an almost infinite variety of forms. Many marry according to the rites of non-Christian faiths. People live together as couples, married or not, and with partners who may not always be of the other sex. Children live in households where their parents may be married or unmarried. They may be brought up by a single parent, by two parents or even by three parents. Their parents may or may not be their natural parents.

“We have somehow to create a one-stop shop in an enhanced re-vamped family court capable of dealing holistically, because it has been given the necessary tools, with all a family’s problems, whatever they may be. More narrowly, dealing holistically with the family court’s traditional concerns with status, relationship breakdown and family finances; more widely, and ultimately more importantly, dealing holistically with all the multiple difficulties and deprivations – economic, social, educational, employment, housing and health (whether physical or mental) – to which so many children and their families are victim. Family justice is surely about something much wider than mere lawyers’ law.”

Sir Munby proposed four changes, which he believes would alleviate many of the problems the family court system is currently experiencing. These include:

  • Removal of fragmentation of the family court’s processes to ease delays, added costs and stress for all those concerned.
  • Relabel family courts as “problem-solving courts” – similar to that seen in the family drug and alcohol courts.
  • Centralise processes so that families, parents and children spread across jurisdictions can be seen under one justice system.
  • Give family courts more say on what resources should be made available and what services should be provided.

Ending his lecture, Sir James said: “What is the objective to which this part of family justice reform ought to be aiming? My thesis is simple, though the road to achieving it will, I fear, be long and hard.”