And so we come to the last part of my review of the year, covering the period from September to December.
September brought another remarkable judgment from the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, although this one quite unlike any others. In Rapisarda v Colladon he dismissed 180 divorce petitions issued in England and Wales after a widespread fraud was uncovered. A firm based in Italy was charging up to £3,700 to arrange the divorces, using 137 different county courts to cover their tracks. Police found an accommodation address in Maidenhead, Berkshire, was used by 179 couples as proof of residency, in order to give the courts in this country jurisdiction to deal with the divorces. The Italian couples involved were prepared to pay the firm in an attempt to circumvent the slow-moving Italian judicial system, where couples have to live apart for three years before divorcing.
The President’s judgment in Rapisarda was also notable for another reason. In an afterword to the judgment he said that he anticipated “that by this time next year there will be fewer than twenty, possibly as few as a dozen, places at which a divorce petition can be issued.” This centralisation of divorces is another element in the reform of the family justice system that the President has been so involved in.
Returning to the theme of the effects of the legal aid cuts that took up so much of the previous part of this review, government figures revealed in October that over sixty percent of parents are now without a lawyer when going to court to contest arrangements for their children. Prior to legal aid being withdrawn from lawyers for most family disputes, the proportion of unrepresented parents at court for the same matters stood at 42% in 2012/13.
What is to be done to help all those unrepresented litigants? On the 23rd of October the answer came from the Ministry of Justice: a network of in-court advice centres to provide them with support. The centres would be manned by advisers coming from a variety of backgrounds including law graduates, students and retired professionals. No disrespect to any of them, but unsurprisingly the initiative was described as “a sticking plaster for a family justice system left seriously wounded by cuts to legal aid”. The phrase ‘papering over the cracks’ also comes to mind.
Clearly aware at last of the disaster they had caused by abolishing legal aid, the government also decided to beef-up its big idea to resolve the mess: mediation. On the 3rd of November the Ministry of Justice announced that from that date the first mediation session will be funded for both parties, provided at least one of them is already legally aided. Funny how a policy designed to save money leads to a situation which requires more money to be thrown at it…
One case which most certainly did not involve legal aid was Cooper-Hohn v Anthony Hohn. This concerned an award of £339 million to the wife Jamie Cooper-Hohn, thought to be the largest ever divorce settlement in England. It has been suggested that the fact that Mrs Cooper-Hohn received less than 50% of the assets, in part due to the husband’s special financial contribution, could make London a less attractive place for the ‘homemaking party’ (as against the ‘money earning party’) to issue divorce proceedings, although I would not shed a tear if London lost its moniker as ‘the divorce capital of the world’.
And finally for 2014, Home Secretary Teresa May has announced a new domestic abuse offence for “coercive and controlling behaviour” within relationships. Coercive and controlling behaviour can include the abuser preventing their victim from having friendships or hobbies, refusing them access to money and determining many aspects of their everyday life, such as when they are allowed to eat or sleep. I hope that the offence will have the desired effect, although domestic abuse charity Refuge has warned that such behaviour would be extremely difficult to prove, and pointed out that the police are not properly implementing the existing laws against serious physical violence.
As I said at the beginning of this review, it has been a momentous year for family law. I suspect that it will be remembered by family lawyers for a long time to come, although whether those memories will be fond ones is another matter…
Have a good Xmas and New Year.