Non-disclosure, deceiving a family court and more

Family Law|October 21st 2016

A week in family law

Here’s my pick from this week’s crop of family law-related stories:

The Court of Appeal has allowed an appeal by a civil partner against the estate of her former partner, who she claims hid assets when entering into a financial settlement following the dissolution of their civil partnership. In 2010 Helen Roocroft, who did not have a lawyer at the time, agreed a settlement whereby her former partner Carol Ainscow pay her a lump sum of £162,000, together with periodical payments of £18,050 a year, for two years. The agreement was made into a Consent Order by the court. After Ms Ainscow died in 2013 Ms Roocroft applied to have the order set aside, claiming that Ms Ainscow had been guilty of material non-disclosure, by hiding business assets worth millions of pounds. The court initially dismissed the application, but Ms Roocroft appealed to the Court of Appeal, which allowed the appeal. The matter will now be re-heard. The case has been said to show that civil partners have the same rights as heterosexual couples. However, I believe it also shows what can happen when parties do not have lawyers, a situation that has obviously become far more common since the abolition of legal aid for most private law family matters.

Philip Marshall QC, the chairman of the Family Law Bar Association (FLBA), has said that the government needs to take urgent action to secure the viability and sustainability of the family courts in response to the rising number of litigants and a sharp decline in funding. He said in an email to FLBA members:

“Everyone who uses the family courts on a daily basis – whether as judge, advocate or lay client – knows that the system is already massively stretched … Delay is now endemic at all levels … This, perhaps, is particularly acute in family cases, in which there is an over-abundance of litigants in person, particularly at appeal court level.”

He continued:

“As Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, I call on government to take notice, act now and inject urgently needed additional funds into the family justice system.”

Let us hope that the government does take notice, but I won’t be holding my breath.

Perhaps the least surprising news of the week was that the government’s much-vaunted Troubled Families Programme, which aimed to help disadvantaged families, has made no significant impact, according to a report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR). The government had previously said the lives of tens of thousands of families have been “turned around” by the scheme, but the NIESR found no consistent, measurable evidence that the scheme had improved the lives of families it aimed to help. One of the authors of the report called the scheme a “policy disaster”, and at least one headline suggested that the £1.3 billion spent on the scheme had been wasted. Ouch. Pity some of that money was not used to keep legal aid…

A paid McKenzie friend has been sent to prison after he was found guilty of perverting the course of justice in a family court case. David Bright was sentenced to 12 months in prison, after the court found that during a family case earlier this year he had filed a psychology report that had been compiled by his colleague and partner Claire Mann, who falsely claimed to be a clinical psychologist. The court heard that one of the parents involved in the dispute had been “emotionally and financially” affected by the case and lost contact with his children as a result. Bright had claimed that he believed Mann’s credentials were genuine and that the report was authentic, but recorder Robert Morrison said the court “saw through that claim”. He also said that he “could not ignore the seriousness of deceit in a family court”. The case clearly demonstrates the minefield of unregulated legal assistance faced by those who would have been eligible for legal aid prior to the legal aid cuts.

And finally, my favourite family law story of the week was the one about the Dubai man who divorced his wife just days after he married her, because he saw her without make-up for the first time, and she was not the woman he thought he had married. Now, I don’t know how much truth there was in this story, but it demonstrates again something I said here last week: if you’re going to marry someone, it’s probably best to get to know them a little first.

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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