What does 2015 have in store for family law? I suspect that it may not be quite so momentous as 2014, but nevertheless here are a few thoughts about the year ahead.
Much of what may occur is not at all clear, but one thing we have been promised is the centralisation of divorce applications. From some point this year, there will be less than twenty locations at which divorce proceedings can be issued. Presumably this will bring considerable savings to the public purse, but it doesn’t sound to me like the sort of change that is likely to improve the service that the public will receive – instead of a local service handling relatively few cases, we will be stuck with a remote service handling many. I can imagine, for example, ringing your divorce centre to raise a query with them, only to be put on one of those “your call is 192nd in the queue” responses that seem prevalent with centralised public organisations. Hopefully, my misgivings will turn out to be unfounded.
Moving on to sorting out financial arrangements following divorce, 2015 may at last bring some progress regarding the implementation of the Law Commission’s recommendations in its Matrimonial Property, Needs and Agreements project. The Commission published its report in February last year and made three main recommendations: that there be written guidance to define and explain what constituted ‘financial needs’ following divorce, that the possibility of introducing formulae to calculate financial outcomes following divorce be investigated and that “qualifying nuptial agreements” should be made enforceable. In April the Ministry of Justice indicated that it was taking forward the first of these recommendations by asking the Family Justice Council to prepare the guidance. It was expected that the guidance would be published ‘later in the year’, but that didn’t happen. Hopefully, it will be published this year, and the Ministry will decide upon the next steps regarding the other two recommendations.
I’m not expecting any great changes in the area of private law children matters in 2015, but perhaps we will get some clarification regarding one of the changes that was brought in in 2014. The ‘presumption of parental involvement’ contained in section 11 of the Children and Families Act was belatedly brought into force in October, but whether it will make any difference to the way in which courts resolve children disputes (and if so what difference it will make) is not at all clear. Perhaps 2015 will bring some judicial clarification to the matter.
We are, of course, looking forward to a general election in May (you are looking forward to it, aren’t you?). At this point it is anyone’s guess who will win, but a new government may of course bring in new family law policies. It is probably too much to hope for, but we could even see such essential reforms as no-fault divorce and property rights for cohabitants, although I suspect that such things will not have high priority, even if they are the policy of the new government.
One thing is certain, however: no matter who wins the general election, there will be no money available to restore legal aid to private law family matters. No doubt there will be further attempts to put a cheap sticking plaster over the gaping wound left by the abolition of legal aid, but whatever form they may take 2015 will certainly be another year of unequal access to family justice for the less well off.
Not a happy note upon which to end, but the fact of the matter is that whatever changes the new year may bring to family law, they will be of little consequence to those who cannot afford to be properly advised and represented.