29 April 2024 marked the start of a new era for family law.

Significant changes were made to the Family Procedure Rules (FPR), which aim to encourage parties to resolve their disputes away from the courtroom – by enhancing the court’s powers regarding non-court dispute resolution (NCDR).

It’s a pivotal shift. One that’s hoped will reduce delays, frustration and hardship for families, whilst also easing pressure on the overwhelmed court system.

Here we explain the changes in detail, including exactly what they mean for the individuals involved. And explore why, as specialist family law solicitors, we’re strong advocates for NCDR – and believe these latest updates are a step in the right direction for our clients.

What changes have been made to the FPR?

  1. The definition of ‘non-court dispute resolution’ has been extended

From April 2024, the definition of NCDR was expanded to cover a variety of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods, including (but not limited to):

  • Mediation

A neutral third party mediates a discussion between the opposing sides. This can include hybrid mediation (parties are supported by solicitors), shuttle mediation (parties do not have to be in the same room) and child-inclusive mediation.

  • Arbitration

An independent expert is appointed, by the parties, to make a final and legally binding decision on the dispute (which cannot be contested in court).

  • Collaborative family law

Involving a series of round table meetings.

  • Evaluation by a neutral third party

This could include, for example, a private financial dispute resolution process. The parties appoint a judge themselves, who can assist with their conflict resolution and negotiation, but cannot impose a binding decision.

Compared to the previous definition of NCDR, which only named mediation, this new definition is intentionally non-exhaustive. As such, it emphasises the importance of exploring diverse avenues of dispute resolution – which move beyond the confines of court litigation.

  • Parties must now be fully informed about NCDR

Whilst there has always been an obligation for parties to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM), under these latest changes, MIAM providers are now mandated to inform their clients about all forms of NCDR that might be suitable for their case.

By law, they must provide comprehensive information on each option – outlining their main principles, processes and benefits – as well as details on how to proceed.

Some exceptions to this do apply – for example, cases of domestic abuse will still be able to bypass the requirement for a MIAM altogether. But generally, it’s hoped these changes will improve understanding of NCDR, reinforce its importance and encourage its use.

  • NCDR must be continuously considered

Perhaps the most significant change implemented.

Rather than just considering NCDR before they start a case, parties are now obligated to revisit the idea throughout the entire legal process. They’ll also need to file a new form (FM5) with the court, which expresses their views on alternative methods of dispute resolution.

It’s hoped this will:

  • encourage people to continuously evaluate whether NCDR is appropriate
  • reinforce the judge’s duty to question whether NCDR should be tried throughout the case

Plus, the new form will allow the court to understand the parties’ thoughts towards NCDR – and, if needed, question why they’re opposed to alternative methods without good reason.

  • Cases can be adjourned without party agreement

Previously, family law cases could only be adjourned if the parties agreed to NCDR.

Moving forward, however, the court will now be permitted to adjourn proceedings to facilitate alternative methods – without the explicit agreement of the parties involved. This is providing the ‘timetabling of proceedings allows sufficient time for these steps to be taken’.

The court still can’t force parties to engage in NCDR – but this provision is intended to incentivise active participation and discourage unjustified resistance. It’s also important to note, when a judge is considering whether to make a costs order (i.e. an instruction for you to pay part or all of the other party’s costs), they may take your conduct regarding NCDR into account.

A welcome change to family law

Those involved in a family law case will now face heightened scrutiny and potential repercussions for bypassing NCDR – especially without a justified reason. Which may seem a little harsh – but these latest changes will ensure court users, judges and family law solicitors all have alternative methods of conflict resolution at the forefront of their minds.

And in our opinion, that can only be a good thing.

Generally speaking, alternative dispute resolution methods have many benefits:

  • Faster resolution – NCDR is often a much quicker process than going to court.
  • Greater control – the parties involved can choose the most appropriate method for them, taking their relationship, legal fees and the complexity of the issue into consideration.
  • Flexibility – parties have more control over the case’s timetable and progression.
  • Less conflict – issues tend to be resolved much more amicably, helping to preserve the ongoing relationship between opposing parties. This is particularly important when children are involved.
  • Lower costs – whilst NCDR shouldn’t be seen as a cheaper option, if a dispute can be resolved outside of court, the legal costs are usually reduced for both parties.

Here at St Helens Law, we have a team of family law solicitors with specialist knowledge and experience in NCDR techniques – including mediation, arbitration and more.

Whether you’re looking to resolve a dispute regarding children, wish to settle a conflict due to divorce, need to sort a prenuptial disagreement etc., we strive to use ADR methods as much as possible. And in most cases, we find that clients just need a neutral environment and cordial exchange of information to settle their differences.

Ultimately, however, our goal is to resolve the matter as quickly and smoothly as possible – reaching an agreement that suits everyone with minimal stress. Whether that be via the NCDR methods encouraged by these recent changes or through traditional court proceedings, we’re here to provide the support and guidance that you require.

So if you’re struggling with a family dispute, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

To arrange an initial consultation with our alternative dispute resolution solicitors, simply give us a call on 01744 742360 or fill out the online form at the top of this page. Alternatively, if you have any questions, send an email to info@sthelenslaw.co.uk and we’ll respond as soon as possible.