July dawned with news from Cafcass of further increases both in private law cases and care applications, putting yet more strain on an already creaking system. The upward trend would continue, only abating as the year drew to a close.
Continuing another trend, the outpourings from the pen of the President of the Family Division continued apace, with the publication the fourth View from the President’s Chambers on the 12th of July. This time, however, he did not just update us upon the process of reform of the family justice system, but also treated us to draft guidance on transparency in the family courts and such arcane matters as ‘allocation’ and ‘gatekeeping’, whatever they are. In fact, the amount of new guidance upon numerous aspects of family law work led me to observe at the time that I was glad that I was no longer practising, as I would be scared to do anything, for fear of contravening the latest set of instructions upon the subject.
Moving on to higher things, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, perhaps better known as the ‘Equal Marriage Act’, received the Royal Assent on the 17th of July, amid much celebration. The Act may not have been everything that some had hoped for, but thankfully at least those who tried to wreck it had failed. The first same-sex weddings will be taking place from the 29th of March next year. A significant step towards a more equal and inclusive society.
On the 29th of July the Department for Work & Pensions announced the opening of the new Child Maintenance Service (CMS) to new applicants with two or more children. It was part of the staged replacement of the ill-fated Child Support Agency, with all its torrid history. The CMS would use a new and improved system to calculate child maintenance, including for the first time using HM Revenue & Customs wage data to calculate payments. The downside was that, once it is fully up and running, the CMS will charge customers for its use.
July closed with the sad news of the retirement of Lord Justice Thorpe, the Head of International Family Justice for England and Wales, after reaching his 75th birthday. One of the best-known and busiest of family judges, he would be sorely missed. I hope he is enjoying what will be a long and happy retirement.
The news in the following days was to be dominated by the Daniel Pelka case. To recap, Daniel died of a head injury in 2012, aged four. On the 31st of July his mother and her partner were found guilty of his murder. As, it seems, with all such tragedies, the criminal trial was followed by the usual witch-hunt looking for scapegoats, particularly amongst the professionals who came into contact with Daniel. I noted with interest at the time the comments of Andrew Webb, the President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, who said it was impossible to prevent all child deaths. He was accused of ‘defeatism’, but I would call it ‘realism’. As I said then, I am fed up with people saying such things as “we must make sure it never happens again”. Well, of course we can never do that – all we can do is learn from mistakes and do our best to prevent it happening again.
On the 6th of August the Office for National Statistics published a release analysing divorces in England and Wales amongst those aged 60 and over, so-called ‘silver divorces’. This showed that whilst the number of people getting divorced each year has been falling steadily since the mid-1990s, the number of people aged 60 and over divorcing has been rising during this period. Possible reasons for the rise included increased life expectancy; a loss of the stigma associated with being divorced; and increasing participation in the labour market by women, making it easier for them to support themselves outside of marriage. Whatever the reasons, it was clear that age was no longer a barrier to escaping an unhappy marriage.
The last event I want to include in this part of the review is the case of M v M. The case hit the headlines because the award of £53.5 million to the wife was believed to be the biggest ever divorce award in a contested claim by a court in this country. However, the judgment of Mrs Justice King was also of interest for other reasons, particularly her description of the husband’s minimal engagement in the proceedings, which included failing to attend hearings and failing to comply with orders. As she said, he did, however, send his companies “in to bat” for him at the trial, in order to fight the case in relation to the only assets about which he cared. She concluded with the memorable line: “The case has been a fantastic charade with the husband a shady puppet master in the background.” Excellent stuff.
John Bolch is a family law commentator