The General Election – a review of the pledges and promises on family law

Family Law|May 22nd 2017

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.

Author: Julian Hawkhead

Julian is Stowe Family Law’s Senior Partner and is based in our Leeds office.

Comments(20)

  1. Paul says:

    Can’t disagree with your assessment. Have to say I am undecided this time.
    I would not get sucked into the sentiment that ‘Labour are not likely to be elected’ so don’t vote for them. Its a self full filling prophecy.
    Unlike most voters I have no issue with Corbyn. Its the pack of vile self serving Blairites in the party who are trying to tear him down at every oppertunity.
    My one ‘major’ gripe with Corbyn is that he is opposed to the idea of 50/50 shared parenting. An the party is over run with militant famanists.
    Im not in favour of ramping up the domestic abuse agenda. Personally I feel these laws are been habitually ‘abused’ by malicous young ladys rather than protecting vunrible ones. What it is intended for. The sentiment is fine. The implimentation has been disgraceful. Men have been demonised.
    Your article has leaned me towards voting against the Conservatives to stop this agenda.
    But the thought of supporting a party with Dianne Abbot in it sickens me to the stomach.
    This is a very difficult election indeed.

  2. Stitchedup says:

    “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.”
    So a survivor is somebody, a woman generally, who doesn’t even know if they have a basis for complaint!!??!!…. Ludicrous!! The definition of domestic abuse is already absurdly broad and can be shoe horned to fit just about any domestic disagreement even to the point that a man can be prosecuted for not appearing to be listening to his partner….. Absolutely absurd!!!

  3. Paul says:

    I was raised largely by my mother. After my parents seperated. I have a very healthy respect for women. I welcome ‘equality’ for women in the work place. I hate violence against women in all its forms.
    Since I seperated from my expartner I have been treated as a ‘msogynist’ and potential danger to my expartner from the start. My presumption of innocense has been completly bypassed. I have been convicted on false grounds. This is a national disgrace. Its the fundimental building block of our legal system to ‘assume’ everyone is innocent until they are found other wise. This domestic abuse agenda has destroyed that. If I can find myself on the wrong side of these laws then anyone can.
    Its a complete national disgrace as far as I can see.
    Off topic but I will be looking at the manifestos for this issue.

    • Stitchedup says:

      It is a national disgrace Paul, but I fear things will get worst before they get better. Separation and divorce has become very, very dangerous for men. People separate or divorce because they are not getting on, the previous loving relationship has broken down. Its a highly emotional time, people feel hurt and have major worries about the future; the future of their children, home, etc etc. In such circumstances people should be given help, support and understanding. Instead, men are effectively put into emotional and psychological straitjackets. They’re not allowed to display emotion, voice an opinion or even defend themselves if physically assaulted by their partner. As a man going through divorce or separation you’re immediately viewed as a threat, a danger to women and children, a potential murderer. Horrendously draconian orders can be placed on the man without a shred of evidence; orders that prevent a man from doing things that in normal circumstances wouldn’t even be considered unreasonable let alone criminal. All this just adds insult to injury, damages family relationships further, causes frustration and indeed anger. It also brings the courts and justice system into disrepute in the eyes of those on the receiving end of summary justice dished out in the name of feminism and political correctness. It appears the system is now designed to cause as much damage as possible, it seems that criminalising the man/father has now become the ultimate goal. Like you, I fell foul of the system and found myself convicted of breaching an ex-parte non-mol because I spoke to my ex. All I ever thought about was how I could make the lives of my children and my ex better; I idolised them. I’m now labelled a violent domestic abuser for speaking to somebody I was in a relationship with for 20 years, have 2 children and, at the time, had a beautiful family home complete with inglenook fireplace and log burner. I worked very hard to provide the best I could for them and would never harm them; have an opinion and perhaps a disagreement yes, but never harm them.

  4. Stitchedup says:

    “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. ”
    What does this mean exactly? More blurring of the lines between civil and criminal law? Yet another attempt to lock men up for actions which in normal circumstances would not be criminal? Lowering the burden of proof for criminal convictions? Abandoning the presumption of innocence until proven guilty?

  5. Paul says:

    They have already done that.
    Looks like they are just scaling it up.
    ‘Femanazi ‘anti-manefesto’
    1. Any woman making an allegation is to be beleived until he can prove otherwise.
    2. Hes probably still guilty so give him a restraing order anyway.
    3. All men are potential rapists, pedofiles and abussers. There for appropriate action must be taken immediatly.
    4. If any level of complaint is received we must move directly to stop contact between the man and his children. Immediatly.
    5. Investigation is not cost effective. Establishing facts is not cost effective. We must act first and hand responsability to the courts.

  6. Stitchedup says:

    Please could somebody explain why my last comment hasn’t been published. I raised some valid questions which Julian had the opportunity to answer, mainly an opportunity for him to explain why he feels bringing together civil and criminal protection measures under the same umbrella.

    • Cameron Paterson says:

      Your comment wasn’t published because it breached our moderation policy. You are welcome to raise valid questions but no personal accusations please

      • Stitchedup says:

        Sorry Cameron, but I don’t believe there were any personal accusations only questions each followed by a question mark. Questions not claims.

  7. Stotchedup says:

    Is commendable.

  8. JamesB says:

    So, the previous general election, 2015, the Tories pledge the NHS care bill with a cap on individuals spending at about 125k. Then they get elected and its like, well, ok, so the Act is put in place, but delayed until 2020. Then, they say, well it wont be implemented and will be all assets down to last 100k. Then they say, well, perhaps there will be a cap. Apparently this is strong and stable government, I think not. Speaking as someone with knowledge (and relative) on the matter. Seems to me an inheritance tax where we all pay to look after people who are ill may be more sensible. Penalising people for being ill seems a bit too fascist extreme eugenics survival of the fittest like and for me is not what being human is about.

  9. Paul says:

    Well stopping disability benefits from been the only way you can pay your bills would take a huge work load off the nhs.
    I have worked in the job centre and in the atos medical centres an i can say with a clear concience scamming is rife in the UK. Benefits Brittain is alive and well. To be honest the Tories are the only ones who willeven take this on. An they get alot of flack for it.

  10. JamesB says:

    Scamming and dodgy benefits claims may or may not be rife, I don’t know, if it is though I don’t think charging old people for their care is a solution to it, and if you are going to give a nod to the Tories, I will give a nod to Labour on what the Tories called a Death Tax (or similar, can’t remember) which was proposed and is and was much fairer than the Tory fudge on this issue, which shows to me that they are not strong and stable, but really just a lot of glitz and not much substance.

  11. Paul says:

    My views are largely Liberal.
    but i can’t vote for an idiot.
    I most certainly will not vote Tory.
    I don’t hate Corbyn like most. But the party overall are a utter shower an will no doubt undermine him.
    Greens are still mickey mouse and Ukip have done their job.

    Genuinely have no idea what to do.

    Its ok rubbishing these ideas as ‘dementia tax’ ect. Charging old people is wrong.
    I would agree with that. But we have never had this many old people and their will be hundreds of thousands more really soon. Someone somewhere has to budget for that. If you don’t have a better idea then you should not be rubbishing other ideas.
    How we going to take care of so many elderly ?

  12. JamesB says:

    A very good question. In France the inheritance tax is a lot higher than here. Also the spending on health is higher there and most developed countries as percentage of GDP then it is here. So, I say raise inheritance tax and close the loopholes, which to be fair to Labour is what they said in 2010 and I agree with them on that. The Lib Dems say put up tax. With the extra money build big care homes and perhaps ask the public to chip in and turn up from time to time, the children could go and dance and sing to them also. Sticking them in Bupa homes and making them pay for it to the benefit of the private sector who overcharge and hide them away.

    I haven’t decided who to vote for either. With regards to Jezza, I am not sure why you call him an idiot. I did vote Brexit. Anyway, all the best, need to go now, is a nice day, thoughts to the people of Manchester and thinking it would be nice if the big Mosques that have appeared up and down the Country do put up some indication outside them that they are against that attack.

  13. JamesB says:

    Sticking them in Bupa homes and making them pay for it to the benefit of the private sector who overcharge and hide them away is what currently happens.

    My grandparents smoked heavily woodbines and had no teeth and died a lot younger. These days the old live on and unhealthily with teeth for a long long time. 90s, 100s. They do need looking after I agree it is a problem. I was just saying that the Tories not having a decent answer to a problem which has been around for many years and claiming to be strong and stable is pushing it and putting politicians into disrepute again. Like they duck family law reform. Yes, I have an interest here, my inheritance goes. Still, my father has slowly progressive motor neurones disease and is an asset to society and I think he shouldn’t be made to pay for his care when he was told NHS would all his life, clever man, now doesn’t get it. Tory voter all his life, I put this to him (that he is paying for his own treatment and he is ill) and he got confused and recognised there is confusion there.

  14. JamesB says:

    The point he doesn’t get, and I don’t get, is how it is said the NHS is wonderful and we don’t have or need an insurance policy like in the US, then when he got ill he has had to pay for his care to survive. He needs nursing care and care to do stuff, like Stephen Hawking, to claim call it Social Care is out of order, its care to survive. I could go on, but have made the main points I wanted to. I still don’t know who to vote for. You slag off Jeremy, I slag of Teresa, I remember her leaving the border staff posts without people, letting people in. I remember her with a dodgy ‘This is what a feminist looks like’ T shirt on, I remember her proposing to arrest men on say so of their partner DV law as home secretary, which was then scrapped when it became evident that people would be locked up left right and centre for behaviour which would not be arrestable if taking place in the middle of the street. I remember her backing the Remain camp and saying how it was best if we stay in the EU. I remember her saying that care costs will be capped and then they were not, then that they are not is fair. I remember her backing bombing of Libya for no good reason. I could go on, but I am not a fan, and don’t think I will be voting for her. I am not sure if I will even vote, or if I do who for. I have been known to vote Tory in the past but not on this occasion, and it is not because she is a woman if anyone thinks that. Edwina, an example of a good female politician, Margaret Beckett also, could go on but need to go and don’t think I need to defend myself on that anyway, regards to all, especially the people of Manchester.

  15. JamesB says:

    I could go on about Teresa May all day, no I’m not a fan and not sure she has much impressive or original or worthy of thought to say. She reminds me of Harry Enfield’s Tory boy, the way she talks in Clichés, I suppose that’s what most politicians do and is similar to being on message, but she seems to do it more than most.

  16. JamesB says:

    I’m not a fan of Grammar Schools either, another reason I won’t be voting Conservative, there is a list but I have put the main ones down. Also their approach to housing and homelessness, very many reasons. Also, that bus, just has strong and stable and Teresa May written on the side. If someone gave me a good reason to vote for them and put it on the side of a bus would be a reason to vote (for them). I am looking for a party to vote for based on policy, not sure who it will be or if I will vote but it probably won’t be Tory this time.

  17. Paul says:

    I think we can forget about manefestos now.
    Events in Manchester have made our priorties clear. We need a party who are commited to dealing with our ‘Isslamist’ problem. We need a party who are prepared to drop the PC BS and deal with the issue head on. Burying our heads in the sand is no longer an option. We need strong leadership arrests and deportations.
    The alternative is blown up children.
    Im fed up with been ‘Tollerant’ isslam is no longer something I wish to tollerate.

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