On June 8 Britain will roll out the ballot boxes once more, just two years on the from the last occasion. The decision to go to the polls follows the political upheavals brought on by the results of that last election and the subsequent Brexit referendum, still less than a year ago. Unsurprisingly, with the third important vote in as many years looming, many Britons have complained of political fatigue.
Back in 2015 (how long ago that seems now), we watched a three way contest unfold between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. Now all three have left the stage and instead we find former Home Secretary Theresa May facing former Labour firebrand Jeremy Corbyn in the battle for Number 10. Meanwhile Tim Farron of the much diminished Liberal Democrats hopes to regain some of the ground lost in 2015.
With just a few weeks of campaigning left before their date with destiny, the major parties have published manifestos with as much fanfare as they can muster, and these have included a variety of pledges and promises of interest to family lawyers.
Whatever your political persuasions might be, the fact remains that the Conservatives are most likely to be handed the keys to power on June 8. So what does their manifesto have to say about family law?
In a sweeping statement on page 73 of their manifesto under the heading “Protecting vulnerable children and families” they say:
“Finally we shall explore ways to improve the family justice system. The family courts need to do more to support families, valuing the roles of mothers and fathers, while ensuring parents face up to their responsibilities.”
There isn’t very much to go on here. No mention of reform to family law and no mention of “no fault” divorce. Perhaps Brexit is the only divorce our government wants to consider in the next Parliament. No mention of legal aid or ways in which access to our justice system or other means of dispute resolution are going to be promoted. No mention of reforming the law on financial remedies on divorce or giving rights to make financial claims to cohabiting couples when they separate.
Clicking through the document, we find commendable promises of a Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill which would bring both civil and criminal protection measures under a single umbrella. A new ‘aggravated’ offence would apply to incidents involving children.
Domestic violence seems to be a key theme. In line with recent declarations by Justice Secretary Liz Truss, the manifesto also pledges a fresh look at the way domestic violence and abuse is defined in law.
This would “enable us to work with victim support groups, experts and agencies to determine whether the current statutory definition is wide enough, to help survivors understand more easily if they have a basis for a complaint.”
In addition, there would be a new commissioner focused on the issue who would “stand up for victims and survivors, monitor the response to domestic violence and abuse and to hold the police and the criminal justice system to account.”
The Tories also claim they will take a fresh look at childcare and children’s health, as well as the support offered to children in care.
The manifesto explains:
“We will review support for children in need to understand why their outcomes are so poor and what more support they might require, in and out of school.”
All in all I think the Conservatives’ manifesto demonstrates how family law reform is very low on their list of priorities. Though there are many voices clamouring for change, perhaps it is a stark reminder that there are other larger fish that need to be fried.
Moving on to Labour, we find a party focused on a range of social policies designed to appeal to its traditional voter base amongst less well-off families.
It pledges a detailed overhaul of free childcare provision, saying the government has “chronically under-funded” a measure originally introduced by the last Labour government. There would a transition to a graduate-led workforce and “significant capital investment”.
Like the Conservative equivalent, the Labour Manifesto has things to say about the care system. There would be a range of new measures to “promote the care and educational achievement of our most vulnerable children and increase support for children in kinship and foster care, and their families”.
According to Corbyn and co, the government has become obsessed with adoption and is neglecting the welfare of children who for various reasons may not suitable for brand new families. For example, there is a promise to allow all children in care, not just those living with foster families, to stay on until they turn 21.
The word ‘divorce’ does appear within the Labour manifesto. It is used only once, but in a context sure to be greeted with a cheer by many of us:
“Labour will introduce a no-fault divorce procedure.”
However what this actually means is not clear. We already have, in part, a no fault divorce procedure if you are willing to wait for two years. Will it mean a reduction in the period of separation required to start the divorce process? Will it mean an end to behaviour and adultery being grounds for divorce? It isn’t clear but for many family lawyers, it is at least a step in the right direction and a commitment that the Conservatives appear unwilling to give.
Another issue on their agenda is the availability of legal aid. In terms that I cannot disagree with they say:
“Justice today has become the preserve of the rich. Budget cuts mean that thousands are deprived of fair resolutions. Justice is eroded by the poor decisions of privatised assessments, by the withdrawal of legal aid… by the delays arising from overcrowded courts and by the costs of fees.”
All true. It is fair to say as we have discussed in past posts on this blog the withdrawal of legal aid has led to increased numbers of litigants in person which in turn has led to increases pressures on courts’ resources to lead unrepresented inexperienced parties through the maze of court processes. Online divorce systems, the establishment of the personal support units to assist these litigants and the half-hearted attempts by the government to promote non-court dispute resolution through mediation are sticking plasters barely covering the rifts in the system.
So the Labour Party is absolutely right. As they say “the justice system can be bewildering and intimidating”.
Sounds great? However is it just the benevolent voice of a party in opposition who have little prospect of getting into power so the harsh realities of how they fund all these changes when the most dominant issue on the political agenda for the next parliament is going to be Brexit? Anybody can point out the flaws and can say how they would do things better. The hard job is actually being able to do it.
The Lib Dems’ manifesto makes far more interesting reading as a family lawyer. Especially one whose work often involves international dimensions. They say:
“The justice system is under pressure; Brexit threatens international cooperation; the Conservatives have failed to defend the rule of law which is the cornerstone of our democracy and cuts to legal aid have denied effective access to justice to many.”
No arguing with the statement about Brexit or the withdrawal of legal aid. They go on to say that they will:
“Ensure that the UK retains international arrangements for jurisdiction, the recognition and enforcement of judgments and for family cases, currently enjoyed under the EU Brussels I and Brussels II Regulation and the Hague Child Abduction Convention.”
They also say that they will “reverse the massive increase in court and tribunal fees”. A divorce petition now costs £550 to file for what is, for most people, a very routine administrative procedure. They will also conduct “an urgent and comprehensive review of the effects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act” on access to justice.
However no mention of reform to divorce laws. Perhaps expected of the party opposed to a hard Brexit and committed to giving the nation a second referendum once the negotiations are concluded on whether to remain or leave the EU, they have considered the legal relationships that we have in some detail.
Whatever future we find awaiting us on the morning of June 9, I do not think that family lawyers will have too much change to prepare for and will have to make the most of whatever comes – along with the rest of Britain.
Photo by Pete via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.