Memories of family cases at Somerset House

Family Law|December 7th 2017

Whilst reading a piece of news the other day (more of which in a moment) I was reminded of when I used to be a regular visitor to the Divorce Registry at Somerset House. Given that the central courtyard at Somerset House is currently hosting its annual ice skating rink, the event for which the old place is now best known, it seems apt to write about it at this time of year.

For those who are not familiar with Somerset House, a little history (and geography). Somerset House is a large three-winged building situated (originally) on the north bank of the river Thames in London, to the east of Waterloo Bridge. I say ’originally’, as Victoria Embankment now separates the building from the river. The building is accessed via an archway on The Strand, just a few hundred yards along the road from the Royal Courts of Justice. It is thus on the doorstep of ‘legal London’.

The present Somerset House is actually the second large building on the site. The first, begun in 1547, was intended as a palace for Edward Seymour, the First Duke of Somerset and eldest brother of Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. Unfortunately, Seymour suffered the fate of so many Tudor figures, and lost his head at the Tower of London in 1552, just before his palace was completed. Ownership of the palace passed to the Crown, and it was used as a residence for royalty until the end of the seventeenth century.

After years of neglect the old palace was demolished in 1775, and the present building was erected in its place. Over the years the present building has been used for many government-related offices, perhaps most famously housing the General Register Office, responsible for births, deaths and marriages – right from its establishment in 1836 until it moved to new premises in 1970. It also housed the Divorce Registry, subsequently to become the Principal Registry of the Family Division, and now known as the ‘Central Family Court’, for some 120 years, until that too moved away, to its present address in High Holborn, in 1998.

My connection with Somerset House began in 1983. I was working for a firm in Gravesend. It was the policy of the firm to issue divorce proceedings in the Divorce Registry, rather than the local divorce county court, as it was felt that clients would benefit from the greater expertise available at the Divorce Registry. When I moved to another firm at the end of the 1980s I continued with the practice of preferring the Divorce Registry (or was it by then the Principal Registry?) over the local divorce courts. I don’t recall when I stopped using the Registry, but it must have been before 1998, as I have never visited the drab building in High Holborn, which is such a let-down to look at compared to its illustrious predecessor.

I recall many times getting the train to Charing Cross, walking along The Strand and passing under that archway into Somerset House. I would cross the central courtyard and enter the building via the central door in the South Wing opposite. It was then a right turn and up the stairs to the Divorce Registry, which occupied part of the West Wing.

My primary memory is that classic lawyer one of time spent at court: waiting around with clients in the corridor outside the district judges’ rooms, before being called in. I do also recall, though, that most of the district judges were much friendlier and more approachable than most DJs in other courts – they were clearly aware that a ‘lighter’ approach was appropriate in family cases, as against other types of case.

I also remember that, whilst I was using it, the Divorce/Principal Registry pioneered a new method of dealing with children cases, introducing ‘conciliation hearings’ when there was a dispute concerning arrangements for children. At these hearings the parties would be interviewed by a welfare officer, without lawyers present, and the welfare officer would investigate whether there was any possibility of matters being resolved by agreement. The hearings also involved the entirely novel requirement that children should attend, so that the welfare officer could also speak to them, to ascertain their views. This requirement only applied to children of a certain age or above – until recently nine and over. Which finally brings me to that piece of news I mentioned at the beginning of this post: it has been announced that children aged eight or over should now attend initial hearings at the Central Family Court.

Sadly, my other memory of Somerset House was just how old the building was, and how unsuitable it was for use as a modern court. It was becoming dilapidated, and it totally lacked any sort of facilities, either for lawyers or for the parties themselves. It came as no surprise to me when I heard that the Registry was moving to new premises, even though they hardly have the prestige (not to mention history) of Somerset House.

When I am next in the vicinity I may take a walk under that archway, for old time’s sake. I will not, however, be putting on ice skates…

Image by fsse8info via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence

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  1. Andrew says:

    I too have a reminiscence of Somerset House. In 1980 I was consulted by a prominent and wealthy local businessman and client of my firm. We knew him as a single man; but he explained that some twenty-two years earlier he had married a fellow student with whom he had long since list touch. He had met Somebody and thought he might want to marry her and what could we do about it?
    I explained about dispensing with service and reminded him that if she eventually found out she could come after him for money for the rest of his life – and he decided to go ahead.
    I applied to the Registrar for the Day to dispense with service – and the application came back with the endorsement: Search index of decrees absolute. So I did, and in those days (1) the fee was so modest that I could pay it from the cash in my pocket and (2) there being no damned computer involved you got the answer then and there. And sure enough, there were the names: she had divorced him fifteen years earlier, service dispensed with.
    And then, acting on a hunch, I crossed the road to St Catherine’s Hoise and searched the index to the marriage registers. Jackpot! She had remarried soon after the divorce.
    I ordered certificates of the divorce and the remarriage; then I used the payphone in the lobby at Somerset House – no mobiles in 1980 – to tell my client that he was free to marry and immune from applications for financial relief. I have never spoken to a happier client.
    And in due course I was a guest at his wedding!

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