The Family Court is overwhelmed with applications to resolve disputes between separated parents concerning arrangements for their children. Parenting styles differ from parent to parent and inevitably when parents separate these differences become a battleground where one parent seeks to exert control over the other.
The single Family Court has been in existence since 22nd April 2014 but a recent innovation involves what is known as a “gatekeeping hearing” which can take place within a few weeks of an application being issued. The purpose of the gatekeeping hearing is to consider the application to the Court along with any comments from Cafcass who will have contacted both parties and carried out safeguarding checks on both parties. The gatekeeper decides which level of Judge will deal with the case from High Court Judge to Circuit Judge, District Judge or the Lay Magistrates Bench.
Children applications made to the Court prematurely will be rejected, with an indication for the parties to attend mediation instead. There is an expectation that parties attempt mediation before applying to the Court. There are only a few exceptions when mediation shouldn’t be used such as when there is domestic abuse.
The gatekeeper, charged with dealing with the hearing, has a number of options as well as rejecting the application. The parties could be referred to the Separated Parents Information Program or directed to attend a settlement conference.
A settlement conference could help parties engage with the decision making of the court. They can discuss the issues of the case and focus on the shared interests of the child. The presiding judge encourages the parties to seek a compromise. Parents feel more in control by having a voice separate to their legal representatives, which could enable them to come to a decision themselves. The judicial input carries weight with parents and means they are more likely to understand the reasoning for the outcome of their case.
The gatekeeper can immediately order a welfare report from the Local Authority or Cafcass; make directions for filing of statements, set a hearing date to hear the parties and make directions or set a hearing date for a first hearing dispute resolution appointment. The gatekeeper will read the application and consider if an urgent hearing is needed.
Since gatekeeping hearings do not require the parties to attend Court or arrange representation, Children applications can be dealt with more rapidly and efficiently by referring the dispute to the best place where it can be resolved.