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What are the Family Procedure Rules?

View profile for Frances Cromwell
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On 29 April 2024, the Family Procedure Rules (“FPR”) were amended to try and enhance the use of non-court dispute resolution to resolve financial and children-related disputes. The amendments place an obligation on parties, family lawyers and the Courts to use non-court-based methods as an alternative to Court proceedings. There continues to be exceptions such as in cases which involve domestic abuse however, those involved will need to keep the situation under active review and consider whether alternative dispute processes are appropriate.    

What are the Family Procedure Rules?

The Family Procedure Rules were created in 2010 and govern the procedures and practices within the Family Court system. The Rules outline practice directions, the powers of Judges and standardise court procedures across England and Wales.

What are the changes to the Family Procedure Rules?

The amendments to the FPR have expanded the definition of non-court dispute resolution beyond the previous focus on mediation to include a wide range of methods such as:

  1. Mediation;
  2. Arbitration;
  3. An evaluation by a neutral third party; and
  4. Collaborative divorce.

There is now an obligation on parties to actively engage with non-court dispute resolution methods before making an application to the Court. Furthermore, the Court will now expect parties to keep the question of whether non-court dispute resolution is appropriate throughout the matter, rather than just before issuing proceedings.

Previously under the FPR there was an expectation that parties engage in mediation before bringing an application to Court and attend a Mediation Information & Assessment Meeting (“MIAM”). There were exceptions to this rule and these exceptions have been tightened as part of these changes to the FPR. These amendments include:

  1. Parties could previously claim an exemption where an application to the court is urgent, and a delay would cause “unreasonable hardship”. This has been changed to “significant financial hardship”.
  2. In situations where there is a lack of mediators in the local area, parties must now explain why it would not be appropriate to use an online mediation service.
  3. There is now a legal mandate for mediators at MIAMs to inform parties about all the suitable forms of non-court dispute resolution and provide comprehensive information on each option.
  4. The definition of the domestic violence exception has been expanded from instances of domestic violence to domestic abuse. This is a recognition of a greater understanding of what can constitute as abuse in a relationship.

The new Rules also require parties to file and serve a form, setting out their views on the suitability of using non-court dispute resolution to resolve their matter. It is anticipated that moving forward, Judges will have a greater understanding of the range of non-court dispute resolution available and will therefore, be able to determine whether there is an appropriate resolution method for the case. 

The rules have changed to give the Court greater case management powers to encourage the use of alternative methods. While the Court cannot mandate engagement of non-court dispute resolution, they can adjourn proceedings and recommend the parties engage in non-court methods, without the need for their agreement. If parties fail to engage with non-court dispute resolution without good reason, then the Court could depart from the “no orders as to costs” principle. Therefore, it is in the best interests of those involved in proceedings to always bear non-court dispute resolution in mind.

Going forward

Ultimately, it is hoped that these amendments will change the culture of family disputes by encouraging settlement through less contentious routes. In theory, this should help parties avoid costly litigation and reduce the exposure of children to parental conflict. The purpose of these changes is to try and promote amicable resolutions between parties and to ensure that Court proceedings are only used in circumstances where no other approach would be appropriate.