What family lawyers were talking about this week… by John Bolch

Divorce|Family Law|Industry News|Stowe Family Law | 6 Dec 2013 5

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High Court judge Sir Paul Coleridge has claimed that he decided to step down from the bench because of opposition to his stance on marriage. Sir Paul is the founder and chairman of the Marriage Foundation, which aims to “champion long-lasting, stable relationships within marriage”. I have already made my views on the Marriage Foundation quite clear on my own blog – they seem to be trying to turn back the clock to some non-existent time prior to the divorce reforms of the 1960s, when everyone remained happily married for the rest of their lives. Of course, they didn’t – the antiquated divorce laws simply forced them to remain in unhappy relationships. Anyway, I’m not surprised that Sir Paul’s outspoken views have led to opposition within the judiciary. Whether or not his voice will continue to attract such attention when he is no longer a judge is something we will have to wait and see.

Sir Paul’s latest great idea was in fact disclosed later in the week, when he suggested that married couples should be sent to classes promoting monogamy, “to help spare children lifelong scars from family breakdown”. I’m sure couples will be queuing up to attend…

Still on the subject of ‘encouraging’ couples to marry/stay married, the Institute of Chartered Accountants is the latest organisation to raise doubts about the effectiveness of the Government’s plans for a tax break for married couples (as confirmed in the ‘Autumn Statement’). They say that many low-income couples who get the tax break will lose benefits payments as a result, leaving them no better off. They also criticise the tax break for adding further complexity to an already complex tax system. So, not only is the measure unfair and unlikely to make any difference to the number of married couples, it is also unlikely to make many of them any better off, and will even make the tax system still more complicated. How many reasons do you need not to go ahead with a policy? Still, if there are votes in it, then none of that matters.

One of the things I’ve learned over the years reporting family law news items is never to trust a biased source. There are certain news reporters out there who have an anti-family justice system agenda. That’s okay – everyone is entitled to their own views. However, when they let those views cloud their reporting of news stories, that can be a problem. Especially when they (intentionally or not) get things completely wrong, painting the system in the worst possible light. Accordingly, there are certain reporters (including, disappointingly, from ‘reputable’ national newspapers) whose stories I take with a pinch of salt, unless they are subsequently verified by a more reputable source. Such was the case with a story that ‘broke’ last weekend suggesting, with appropriately lurid headlines, that social workers had forced a mother to have a caesarean section so that they could take her baby into care. As I and other family lawyers (including Marilyn Stowe) suspected, the truth turned out to be somewhat different (although I’m not saying that all of the decisions made in the case were necessarily the right ones). Of course, by that point further damage to the reputation of the family justice system had already been done.

And while we’re on this subject, a survey recently published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) into public attitudes towards court fees suggests that only half of those asked have confidence in certain aspects of the family courts when dealing with matters concerning children. Given the constant assault upon the family justice system by the ever-vocal ‘corrupt family courts’ brigade and certain members of the media, this comes as no surprise. I’m certainly not saying that the system is perfect (what system could be?), or that we should be complacent, but clearly more needs to be done to explain the workings of the system – a point which has been acknowledged by the President of the Family Division himself.

The news that the Ministry of Justice is scrapping the £75 application fee for domestic violence injunctions is to be welcomed. It doesn’t sit that well, however, with the hurdles placed in the way of domestic violence victims getting legal aid, something I mentioned previously in this post. Time, perhaps, for a little joined-up thinking from the Government?

Giving with one hand and taking with the other, the MoJ also indicated that it wants to increase the court fees or a divorce petition to £750. I can recall when it was just £40, but that was before the Courts Service became a profit-making organisation…

On Wednesday the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in In the Matter of KL (A Child), as explained in this post. And very sensible the result seems to be, putting the interests of the child first in deciding that he should return to his home state of Texas so that the dispute between his parents can be determined there. It appears that there is now a measure of cooperation between the parents and, if so, long may this continue. We can only hope they are able to make arrangements for the child’s long-term care rather than return to the Texan courts for further litigation.

And finally, a salutary tale. Much as I am in favour of clients giving their money to lawyers, spending £100,000 to recover a £550 wedding ring is taking things a little too far in my view…

Have a good weekend!

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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    1. Paul says:

      I first heard of Mr Justice Coleridge after he gave a speech to the family lawyers association a few years, a speech that was widely reported at the time. Having then gone on to read the speech itself I thought he was well in touch with the problems around family law and bold enough to articulate them. He came across as having great empathy for suffering children and there was a sense of understanding and pathos about him which set him apart from most. He used the term, the Gold Standard, to describe what he personally considered the optimum arrangement for raising children – marriage between a heterosexual couple. I don’t think there was anything wrong with that but I do remember many lawyers jumping out of the woodwork to criticise him. That he went on to help create the Marriage Foundation made him, sadly, a marked man.

      If he has gone prematurely, then my gutfeeling tells me this will come as a loss to the England and Wales judiciary. I hope he is able to remain in public life in some constructive way.

    2. Stephanie Bamberger says:

      £750 to file for dissolution? Wow, I thought our fees were crazy high – it’s only $435 (£265) to file in California. Of course, we also have other, smaller fees along the way ($20, $65, $80). I remember when the fees were $199 (£121) to file, but I’m showing my age there.

    3. u6c00 says:

      On the plus side, more people will be able to keep their marriage tax break because they won’t be able to afford to divorce. Hurrah!

      I can see no possible way in which making occupation and non-molestation orders ‘freebies’ can go wrong.

    4. Stitchedup says:

      “The news that the Ministry of Justice is scrapping the £75 application fee for domestic violence injunctions is to be welcomed. It doesn’t sit that well, however, with the hurdles placed in the way of domestic violence victims getting legal aid, something I mentioned previously in this post. Time, perhaps, for a little joined-up thinking from the Government?”

      And what help for those that have to fight these??

      Your comments are completely contradictory to the comments made by the judge in my case where he specifically said that “it wasn’t a high hurdle for the applicant”, the barrister representing my ex said the same and every other solicitor/barrister I know say the same as do many police I know, including many WPC.. Yet more non-mols and occupation orders to be dished out like smarties….. gamesmanship more often than not, resulting in the decimation of families and criminal convictions for no good reason.

      You seem to be obsessed with DV John.

    5. Stitchedup says:

      Regarding Paul Coleridge, I have found his comments regarding the unrealistic expectations people have of marriage to be well grounded and a breath of fresh air. As a defender of marriage as an institution. I’m sure his comments did not go down well with divorce merchants.

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