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New procedures hope to encourage resolution of children disputes

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Since 1 April 2010 there have been a number of significant changes introduced that will affect the way in which disputes about children will be dealt with by the courts. The changes, known as the Revised Private Law Programme ("PLP"), are intended to provide parents with a forum to resolve disputes in the best interests of their children, in the event that they have not been able to reach an agreement voluntarily or by another means such as mediation.

The PLP has a strong focus on ensuring the safety of the children and the parties involved, and introduces a requirement for risk assessments to be carried out at the outset of the case. Also reflected in the PLP is an awareness of the importance of involving children, where appropriate, in the decision making process.

It is clear from the way in which the PLP is drafted that there is an intention that cases should be dealt with by the courts constructively and expeditiously. Once the initial application forms have been completed, for example for a contact order or residence order, the court is required to send a copy to the local CAFCASS (Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) office within 24 hours, so that the necessary safety checks can be carried out by them prior to the first hearing.

The first court hearing must be listed no later than 6 weeks of the court receiving the application. The hearing is known as the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment and it is designed to give the parties the opportunity to come to an agreement, with the assistance of their respective solicitors and the CAFCASS officer, who will be present at court. Before going into the courtroom, each of the parties will have an individual discussion with the CAFCASS officer, who will then be able to report to the judge about any areas of disagreement between the parties, with a view to narrowing the issues if at all possible. The judge will then attempt to conduct a conciliation exercise in an attempt to reach a final resolution to the matter at the first hearing.

If the parties are unable to reach an agreement at the first hearing, then the court will adjourn the matter to give the parties the opportunity to attend mediation, or some other form of alternative dispute resolution such as attendance at contact centres or periods of observed contact.

If no agreement is able to be reached after the above stages, then the matter will proceed to further hearings, with the possibility of a fully contested final hearing. As with all types of family cases, the final hearing is to be regarded as a last resort where parties are so far apart that there is no possibility of them reaching an agreement either with or without the involvement of their solicitors. The approach of the PLP is therefore designed to assist and promote discussions and conciliation between the parties, and with the involvement of CAFCASS the focus remains on what is in the best interests of the children.

The first stages of the PLP were implemented in courts on 1 April 2010 with a view to the programme being fully up and running by no later than 4 October 2010.

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