Sir James Munby, a leading family law Judge and President of the Family Division, has announced that finance cases as a consequence of divorce should be dealt with by a national network of specialist Financial Remedies Courts.
The scheme, which is being piloted in three regions early next year, is in part designed to address the concerns raised by the Law Commission that there are inconsistencies of outcomes in matrimonial finance cases across the country. The most common concern is the apparent discrepancy between cases heard within the M25, in particular central London, and those dealt with elsewhere in England and Wales. London has not earned its reputation as being ‘the divorce capital of the world’ for no reason. As a result, most family law practitioners would welcome the proposed change on the basis that it should provide greater predictability for clients on the likely outcome of their case - wherever it is heard. It is further thought that it should reduce the amount of forum shopping which currently takes place where one party makes a tactical decision to issue proceedings in a particular court on the basis that they believe they will receive a more favourable outcome there than in another court elsewhere.
The new plans are also brought in an effort to separate the administration of the divorce itself, which is usually a fairly straightforward paperwork exercise, from the often more complex issue of the division of parties’ assets. The need for judicial involvement in the actual divorce is limited in contrast to money claims which usually require the expertise of a specialist Judge and so the scheme should provide a more streamlined process to reduce delays and decrease the ever present strain on the Courts.
The South East already has a similar structure in place: divorces and uncontentious financial cases are dealt with at a centralised administrative centre in Bury St Edmunds and a specialist Financial Remedies Unit has been created at the Central Family Court in London. The FRU, as it is known, has judges and administrative staff who are solely dedicated to financial remedy work. It is an effective way of ensuring that cases which require it (but which are not sufficiently large or complex enough to warrant being transferred to the High Court) are given the necessary expertise of a specialist ‘money’ judge to address the complexities that arise.
Once the initial teething problems that inevitably come with change have been overcome it is hoped that this will be a welcome change to the current overburdened system. Lawyers will hopefully have more confidence that their clients’ cases will be heard by a suitably qualified judge with a financial remedy background and one would hope as a consequence of the greater certainty in outcome that it will lead to more cases settling at an earlier stage in the litigation. Cases should, as a result of the structure, receive appropriate judicial input; experience less wait time for hearing dates; and have consistency, as cases can more easily be allocated to a specific judge from start to finish.