Vulnerable witnesses, online divorce and more

Family Law|January 6th 2017

A fortnight in family law

Well, the last two weeks was supposed to be a quiet time, but it didn’t quite turn out that way…

The first piece of news came just before Christmas, when The Guardian surprised most family lawyers by reporting that the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby is to pursue a ‘radical trial’ this year, whereby certain family court hearings are to be held in public. Apparently, a pronouncement to this effect is expected in the New Year, although whether it is, and what exactly it contains, we will have to wait and see.

We did not have to wait until the New Year, however, to hear from our President. Apparently responding to another story by The Guardian, on 30 December he issued a statement saying that he remains concerned about the fact that alleged perpetrators of domestic violence are able to cross-examine their alleged victims. However, as he points out, reform is a matter for the government, not the judiciary. Sure enough, on 4 January we heard that justice secretary Liz Truss has set up an emergency review to find the quickest way to ban perpetrators of domestic abuse from directly cross-examining their victims within the family court system. I await hearing how she proposes to do this without granting alleged perpetrators legal aid, so that their lawyers can do the cross-examination.

Also before the New Year was ushered in we were informed that almost 26,000 people sought advice about domestic abuse from the BBC over the phone and online in 2016, driven in particular by a storyline in the BBC radio soap The Archers. That storyline attracted 635 calls to the BBC Action Line Service, which offers information and support for issues covered in recent programmes, nearly three times as many as any other storyline over the last four years. Clearly, the storyline hit a nerve, although that may not come as a surprise to anyone aware of the extent of the domestic abuse problem we have.

Still on the subject of domestic abuse, the New Year brought the news that Sunderland may become the UK’s only major city without any domestic violence refuges for women, due to budget cuts. Let us hope that this does not come to pass, as if it does it could be just the first of many closures across the country. These refuges provide an essential service, and must be protected.

Moving on, figures obtained by the Scottish National Party (SNP) show that the charges to use the Child Maintenance Service, which were introduced in 2014, earn the government almost £1 million a month, a figure that is expected to rise. No wonder the SNP call the charges a “cruel and callous tax”, particularly for domestic abuse victims, who feel they have no option but to use the service as they are too frightened to have a direct link to their abuser. For more on the impact of charging, see this post that I wrote last month.

Back with the newspapers, The Times reported this week that the government is planning to pilot online divorce proceedings, with a view to the system being introduced across England and Wales this June. However, that timescale is thought to be somewhat optimistic by those in the know. Whatever, it is clear that we will be getting an online divorce system at some point in the not too distant future. Let us just hope that the government ensures that it is fit for purpose, rather than rushing it in purely as a cost-saving exercise.

And finally, the big news of the last fortnight was that men with beards are apparently seen as more attractive prospects for a long-term relationship than their clean shaven peers. This important piece of information nearly prompted me to re-grow my beard, at least until I recalled that the last time I grew it, it was almost completely grey and made me look about twenty years older. Oh well, who wants a long-term relationship anyway?

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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