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Two weeks in family law: Legal aid, post-nups and more

Having missed this ‘Friday Review’ post last week due to the Easter break, I now have two weeks’ worth of family law news to cover. However, Easter is usually a quiet time for family law news, and so it proved this year, so I can keep this post to a reasonable length.

The Ministry of Justice has published its latest family court statistics, for the fourth quarter of 2014. They show that both parties were represented in only 22 per cent of all private family law cases and that the number of private law disposals where both parties were represented fell by 42 per cent in October to December 2014, compared to the same quarter the previous year. This continued the worrying trend since the second quarter of 2013, when legal aid was abolished for most private law family matters.

The statistics also showed that the average time taken to complete a child care or supervision case during that quarter was 28.7 weeks, despite the government having introducing a 26 week limit for such cases.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson responded to the statistics by saying:

“In April 2013 we introduced a 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision cases, to improve the timeliness of finding a permanent placement for children. However the courts have the discretion to extend cases by up to eight weeks should that be necessary to resolve proceedings justly. As a result the average length of care cases is highly unlikely to ever be 26 weeks.”

All of which, whilst understandable, does seem to me to make the 26 week limit a little bit of a nonsense.

A wife has lost her £2million divorce claim because she had signed a post-nuptial agreement. William and Caroline Hopkins, who separated in the summer of 2011, had signed a post-nuptial agreement under which Mrs Hopkins would receive two properties, £350,000 and a share of her ex-husband’s pension. Mrs Hopkins complained that the agreement had been reached after she was put under undue pressure, and argued that she should be awarded a further £2million. However, the judge preferred Mr Hopkins’s evidence and rejected the claim of undue influence. Mrs Hopkins has since advised women not to sign post-nups. Is that good advice?

In a case that made national headlines, a father who insisted that he had a right to smack his children has had his son and daughter taken into care. He had told the court on more than one occasion that he believed in smacking children by way of discipline, that he did so on the bottom, leg and arm and that he used his hand causing red marks on their bodies which, according to him, ‘did not last long.’ However, Rotherham Council social workers were not happy with his behaviour and care proceedings were therefore instituted. Judge Sarah Wright found that there was no prospect of the father changing his ways and made an order for the child to live with her maternal uncle, with whom her brother had already been placed. A difficult case, particularly as the father clearly felt he was doing the right thing, and nobody teaches you how to be a parent.

Another care case that made national headlines involved a two year old boy of black African heritage who was allowed to stay with his white British foster carer under a special guardianship order, rather than live with his paternal great-aunt, as his parents wanted. Obviously, the child’s cultural and ethnic background is an important consideration in such cases, but ultimately it is only one factor in the balancing exercise of what is best for his welfare. Here, the court felt that his welfare was best served by him remaining with the foster carer and therefore made the order that it did.

And finally Baroness Hale, in an interview with The Times, has called for the introduction of no-fault divorce, describing the move as a ‘common sense approach’ which could reduce the stress that separating couples currently endure. Let us hope that the interview was read by whoever becomes our Prime Minister after 7 May.

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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