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Family courts halt proceedings under new resolution rules

Family courts halt proceedings under new resolution rules

The Family Courts have initiated a significant shift in handling separating couples by halting proceedings to enforce the exploration of non-court dispute resolution (NCDR) methods. BDB Pitmans, a family law firm, highlights that refusal to participate in NCDR could result in substantial financial penalties, including covering part of the opposing party’s legal costs.

These changes follow the introduction of new rules in April 2024 aimed at encouraging mediation and arbitration to expedite dispute settlements. Annie Wogel, an Associate in the Family Law team at BDB Pitmans, explains that while family lawyers have always advocated for out-of-court settlements, these new rules add substantial pressure and their effects are becoming evident.

Judges are now pausing and delaying already initiated proceedings to push couples towards NCDR. Additionally, the new rules create an exception to the standard practice where each party bears their own legal costs. Non-compliance with NCDR can now lead to a court order requiring one party to cover their partner’s legal expenses.

Annie Wogel outlines the benefits of resolving disputes outside of court, including reduced acrimony, lower legal costs, and quicker resolutions compared to the lengthy delays often experienced in family courts. Despite the common misconception, family lawyers strive to avoid court proceedings, encouraging mediation, arbitration, and other settlement methods as a last resort.

However, the courts acknowledge that NCDR may not be suitable for all situations, such as cases involving abusive marriages.

Background to the changes to non-court dispute resolution

The changes implemented in April 2024 emphasise mandatory engagement with NCDR methods unless justified otherwise. Key aspects of these changes include:

  • Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM): Before initiating most family court proceedings, individuals must attend a MIAM. Here, an accredited mediator provides detailed information about NCDR methods, including mediation, arbitration, collaborative law, and third-party case evaluations.
  • Court’s Duty to Encourage NCDR: Even after court proceedings commence, judges must encourage parties to consider resolving their issues outside of court. They can adjourn hearings to allow time for NCDR attempts.
  • Pre-Hearing NCDR Views: Seven days before the first hearing, both parties must file a form outlining their perspectives on NCDR suitability, prompting serious consideration and discussion of these options.
  • Cost Implications for Non-Compliance: While the default in family law proceedings is for each party to bear their own costs, courts now have the discretion to order one party to contribute to the other’s legal expenses if they fail to engage in NCDR without valid reasons.

Read the complete article here.

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