So, what about the Single Family Court? Section 17 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 (snappy title) merges the Family Proceedings Court, the family jurisdiction of the County Courts and the Family Division of the High Court into one, unified, Single Family Court. The Family Division will retain its jurisdiction in cases relating to the exercise of its inherent jurisdiction and in relation to cases with an International dimension (effectively child abduction cases).
Each “area” will have a Designated Family Centre; the Designated Family Judge will be based there. All proceedings will be processed from there, but there will also be satellite hearing centres (in effect, the County Court hearing centres).
In order to streamline the process and remove bureaucracy, a new procedure will be implemented when a case is now issued. At the Designated Family Centre a gatekeeping team comprising a Magistrates’ Court legal advisor and a District Judge, will allocate the case to the appropriate judicial level (Magistrates; DJ, CJ, HCJ) and designate where the case will be heard. The idea is to allow scrutiny at an early level, though it remains to be seen how effective this will be given the vast increase in litigants in person issuing badly pleaded claims. The benefit however is that where specialist courts are required, the case can be sent there straight away, rather than going through a FHDRA before being re-allocated.
Because the distinction between, for example, specialist care centres and “ordinary” family hearing centres has been abolished, and because the Judiciary will be more mobile within the Single Family Court, it is likely that some DJs will find themselves sitting in Magistrates’ Courts, and vice versa. It will be important to determine firstly where the case is in fact being heard, which will require liaison at the gatekeeping stage, and careful monitoring of lists to see where, for example, a DJ is actually sitting. In practice this may mean the chopping and changing of venues. It may also mean that certain cases will be allocated for hearing to courts also hearing criminal cases. This aberration arising from the extension of the jurisdiction of the FPC is likely to become even more problematic under the Single Family Court.
The Single Family Court judiciary are also likely to be allocated specialisms. This will apparently lead to certain Judges principally dealing with, for example, Financial Remedy proceedings. So long as the selection is carried out appropriately, this is likely to be a beneficial reform.
In London, significant changes have been made to the court structure. The Principal Registry has been overhauled, predominantly by removing all of the water machines from each floor. Wells Street should move in imminently. The West London Family Court has opened at Hatton Cross, and it appears that much of the work of other County Courts will move (or at least need to be issued out of) there. Kingston has already done so. For those of you who have not experienced the delights of this misbegotten and flight-blighted place, please be reassured that it is only an hour and a half away from Central London on the Piccadilly line.
The East London Family Court is not ready, as the MoJ were not able to obtain a lease on their preferred building. At present therefore it will sit out of Gee Street, and should be established in around November 2014. Croydon will remain for now, apparently as a satellite of the East London Family Court.