The family courts should have greater powers to enforce financial settlements after divorce or the end of a civil partnership, the Law Commission has claimed.
This independent statutory body reviews existing legislation and recommends reform. In a brand new report, the Commission sets out a range of recommendations designed to make it easier for the courts to respond when ex-spouses fail to meet their financial obligations.
Hindering court-ordered property sales or failing to pay child support and spousal maintenance can cause“significant hardship” for the poorer spouse, who may have a low income or even none at all. In the worse cases, they may find themselves unable to pay their mortgage or rent or to afford basic, daily necessities. Despite these problems, it can be challenging to enforce payment through the courts, especially if the recipient spouse has no lawyer.
The report explains:
“We estimate that on average there are 4,200 enforcement cases in relation to family financial orders each year. Although data on the total amount of money that goes unpaid each year through non-compliance with family financial orders is not routinely collected, we estimate that it is approximately £15 – 20 million.”
Amongst the recommendations made are additional guidance and information for litigants in person and simplification of the existing enforcement regulations. In addition ‘debtors’ – i.e. the paying ex-spouse in a financial settlement – could be subject to more stringent obligations “to provide honest and early disclosure of his or her financial circumstances.”
If the recommendations become law, courts would have new power to obtain information on individual’s finances from third parties and to seek payment from currently inaccessible funds such as those in joint accounts and pensions.
Other enforcement measures under consideration for non-paying debtors include suspension for their driving licences or even their passport
Professor Nicholas Hopkins is Law Commissioner for property, family and trust law. He explained:
“The current law for the enforcement of family financial orders is unnecessarily complicated and often ineffective. These problems cause real hardship for the individuals involved. Judges need the necessary powers to ensure that those who can pay, but choose not to, comply with court orders.”
Stowe Family Law Senior Partner Marilyn Stowe welcomed the report, saying:
“These measures are much needed, won’t be difficult to implement and should make enforcement considerably easier even for people who are acting without lawyers. The range of possibilities means that people won’t be able to avoid enforcement as easily as they can do now because it’s so complex. I also support the proposed amendment which would make it straightforward to enforce a pension sharing order made abroad against an English pension. At the moment it is very difficult to do so and in some cases it isn’t possible at all.”
Read more here.
Image by Alexander Baxevanis via Flickr