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Family law reforms come into force
The new Family Court in England and Wales comes into force today as part of a major shake-up for the family justice system.
A single Family Court for England and Wales replaces three separate tiers of court that currently deal with family proceedings.
Other changes include a new 26-week time limit for care proceedings to further reduce excessive delays in these cases.
Reforms to the family justice system came after an independent Family Justice Review in 2011 found vulnerable and damaged children who were meant to be protected were having their "futures undermined".
Excessive delays, with care and supervision cases taking an average of 56 weeks, were among some of the problems identified by the review led by David Norgrove.
Liberal Democrat family justice minister Simon Hughes said: "For too long children have suffered from excessive delays and confrontational court battles.
"Our reforms will keep families away from negative effects of battles or delays in court and make sure that when cases do go to court they happen in the least damaging way."
Conservative Edward Timpson, children and families minister, said: "Every child deserves a safe and stable home - no matter what their background or starting point in life.
"The new 26-week time limit will reduce unnecessary delays by ensuring that judges focus on the facts without getting caught up in unnecessary evidence or bureaucracy.
"These reforms will mean a swifter system where children's best interests are placed - where they rightly should be - at the heart of decision making."
Other reforms include expert evidence in family proceedings concerning children only being permitted when necessary and c ompulsory family mediation meetings so separating couples consider alternatives to court battles.
Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division said: "Today marks the largest reform of the family justice system any of us have seen or will see in our professional lifetimes.
"Taken as a whole, these reforms amount to a revolution. There has been, indeed there had to be, a fundamental change in the cultures of the family courts. This is truly a cultural revolution.
"I have visited every care centre to see for myself how it is taking shape.
"These visits have brought home to me just how enthusiastically and with such determination and commitment everybody in the family justice system has embraced the process of reform: local authorities, CAFCASS, court staff, judges (in whom, of course, I include the magistrates), justices clerks and the legal professions."
Cathy Ashley, of the Family Rights Group charity, said she was concerned that wider family members may be sidelined from care proceedings as a result of the time limit if a child's parents did not make the court aware of their existence.
This is because the time limit could make it harder for extended family to become aware of the proceedings in time to make themselves known to the court.
She said this could lead to children who could be looked after by relatives or friends being placed in foster care, or being adopted by people they do not know.
She told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "Mr concern about the Children and Families Act that's going through is that it's a hotch-potch. There are some positive measures but there are also some provisions which will actually potentially work against children.
"I am particularly worried both about the speeding-up of care proceedings in terms of making sure there are some safeguards for people (in a situation where more time is needed)."
But Mr Hughes defended the reforms and said the court has the power to extend the 26-week time limit if necessary.
The Family Justice Minister said he understood nervousness about a new system but insisted the time limit was not an absolute rule.
The reforms are intended to give children security and certainty as soon as possible, he said.
Mr Hughes told Today: "Often the battle over children went on for weeks and weeks and months and months, absolutely against the interests of the child, and when families break up, tragically - and there are hundreds of thousands of couples who divorce every year, I'm afraid, in England and Wales - when families break up there are often children involved.
"When care proceedings are involved - and there are 15,000 of those every year when local authorities intervene in the interests of the children - then we believe that that needs to be resolved as soon as possible so the child has security and certainty, so they are not moved from pillar to post."