A WEEK IN FAMILY LAW
The government’s support for litigants in person in the family courts has been “sadly inadequate” up until now, the President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has said. Writing the foreword to the latest edition of The Family Court without a Lawyer – A Handbook for Litigants in Person, he said:
“The Family Justice Council has done valuable work in providing user-friendly literature for litigants in person, but otherwise the work thus far undertaken by government – whether the Ministry of Justice, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, or the Family Procedure Rule Committee – has been sadly inadequate … At present our practices and procedures are designed for – assume – a family justice system where the typical litigant has legal representation, whereas the reality is that, across vast swathes of the family justice system, the typical litigant now has no legal representation. The consequence is that practices, procedures and rules designed for lawyers are largely inaccessible – truth be told, unintelligible – to litigants in person.”
Yes, it is now four and a half years since legal aid was withdrawn for most private law family matters, surely quite long enough for the government to get their act together.
The Court of Appeal has ruled against a wife who was seeking to have her £3.5 million divorce award increased. Karen Hart was awarded that sum, out of total assets of £9.4 million. The reason that she received only one third of the assets was that her husband had brought substantial assets into the marriage. However, she argued that she was entitled to a full half share of the assets, as she had made a full contribution to the marriage, which had lasted over twenty years. She therefore appealed against the award, but the Court of Appeal dismissed her appeal, saying that the judge was entitled to conclude that an equal division would be unfair to Mr Hart. Mrs Hart’s solicitors have called the decision “unfair and discriminatory”, in that it means that the financial contribution of one spouse outweighs the family and domestic contribution of the other. The case also raises the question of whether there should be a length of marriage ‘cut-off’ beyond which pre-acquired assets should no longer be treated as non-matrimonial.
Ministers have confirmed that they will go ahead with plans to make it easier for domestic abuse survivors to register to vote anonymously. Under existing legislation, domestic abuse survivors must provide a court order or have their application supported by a senior independent witness, such as a police superintendent, in order to appear anonymously on the electoral register. These strict requirements have deterred many from registering at all, prompting a campaign by charities and survivors to make it more accessible. The government’s changes will increase the number of people who can act as witnesses, including medical and healthcare professionals and refuge workers, and expand the type of evidence which can be put forward. Sounds good, although it will be interesting to see how this will work without a court finding of abuse.
A father who refused the mother contact with three of their four children because he couldn’t have contact with the fourth, eldest child has been committed to prison for 28 days for breach of a contact order. As I explained here, the case is a classic example of how not to use children in a dispute over arrangements for them. The case also highlighted the problems with respondents to committal applications getting legal representation, something to which they should surely be entitled, as their liberty is at stake. Here, the father was not on benefits and therefore did not have an automatic passport to legal aid, so solicitors were unwilling to represent him. Accordingly, it took until Friday afternoon to deal with the matter, the father having been arrested and detained in custody on the Wednesday before. Her Honour Judge Hughes QC commented of this situation that she was “ashamed to be part of a system that it has taken so long for any legal representation for someone facing committal to have.”
And finally, this week’s essential research came from Opinium Research, which found that more than a quarter of people believe joint accounts for married or cohabiting couples are a bad idea, which could lead to arguments and even divorce. I suspect there may be some truth in this, although logically it should surely make little difference if money is squandered from a sole account rather than a joint account. Maybe it is just a question of making it easier to hide the spending, or at least the full amount of it. After all, what the eye doesn’t see…
Have a good weekend.