Siobhan Redhead is a partner at Miles Preston & Co.
Since 1 October 1996 in certain courts, of which the Principal Registry is one, all applications for ancillary relief (financial provision in matrimonial proceedings) have had to be made under a new procedure dramatically different from that which has been applied, with few modifications, for the past 25 years.
Such applications currently operate by way of a pilot scheme under a draft new rule, enabling the procedure to be monitored and evaluated. The President of the Family Division's direction of 25 July 1996 says the draft rule is intended to expedite proceedings.
As a first step, the rule provides for completion by the parties of extensive financial statements in a specified format. There is then provision for an early first directions appointment to define the issues and establish the extent of discovery required, and a subsequent financial dispute resolution (FDR) appointment where proposals for resolving issues can be discussed in circumstances of privilege and (after further directions appointments, if required) a final hearing. The parties to the proceedings must personally attend each appointment, with written estimates of costs so that, as the case progresses, the parties are fully aware of their costs incurred.
This means that they focus on the details and technicalities of the proceedings as well as being made aware of the costs implications of their litigation.
Limitations on the extent of discovery have been rigorously imposed in practice. In his foreword to the Practioners' Guide to the Pilot Scheme, Lord Justice Thorpe refers to the reality of litigants in matrimonial proceedings being "frequently if transiently psychologically or emotionally disturbed".
The privileged FDR appointment, at which the District Judge can make frank observations as to what he or she considers to be the likely outcome of an application, can help the parties accept a realistic assessment of their case at an early stage.
There seems little doubt that, by and large, the judiciary and practitioners will endorse the pilot scheme following which, with some modifications, new procedural rules will be introduced.
The scheme will find favour with a public increasingly concerned with obtaining value for money from the services that they employ. It seems the time is right for a change in procedure in this area, as in other areas of practice.