In a (probably futile) attempt to make the traditional annual review of the year a little bit different, this year I am concentrating not so much on the big family law news stories, but rather the stories that I found of particular interest. Hopefully, this might make the review a little more interesting to the reader too, whilst still giving a reasonable flavour of the year in family law.
Oh, and a word of warning: this is going to be pretty quick-fire, with little in the way of explanation or discussion of the stories I mention. I will try wherever possible to include links to relevant posts on this blog, where you can obviously find further information.
- The year began with the news that charges to use the Child Maintenance Service provide the Government with a nice little earner of almost £1 million a month, demonstrating quite clearly that the fees are actually a tax on those unfortunate parents caring for children whose former partners are not prepared to agree to maintain them. Quite despicable.
- Then Lord Chancellor Liz Truss ordered a review to ban the cross-examination of alleged domestic abuse victims by the person accused of the abuse. One of the few sensible things that the ill-fated Lord Chancellor did during her short term in office.
- With the government failing utterly to provide proper or sufficient help to the army of litigants in person (LiPs) that it has created, the ever-innovative Bristol Family and Civil courts decided to do what they could by launching a new scheme to help LiPs, by providing them with an information session and a tour of the court. Hopefully, this will make appearing at the courts without representation a little less daunting.
- February greeted us with the news that our energetic but much loved President Sir James Munby is to step down next summer. I wish him a long and happy retirement. His successor is expected to be announced in late April 2018
- February also brought to the mass attention the case of Tini Owens, who is appealing against a judge’s ‘extraordinarily unusual’ refusal to grant her a divorce on the basis of her husband’s alleged ‘unreasonable behaviour’. I understand that Mrs Owens has taken her case to the Supreme Court (after her appeal was turned down by the Court of Appeal in March), although I can’t find any mention of it on the Supreme Court website. Whatever, hopefully the nonsense of a party being refused a divorce, and the publicity that this case has received, will make those in power realise that it is really high time we had a modern no-fault divorce system in this country…
- …although I wouldn’t hold my breath as, shortly after the Owens case went public, the government confirmed it has no current plans to change existing legislation. Mind you, with the Owens case staying in the news since February, and with additional pressure for reform from numerous quarters, one can still hope.
- Another case that hit the mainstream media headlines in February, and that is also heading to the Supreme Court (although again I can find no reference to it in the current cases list on the Supreme Court website) is that of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, who are challenging the fact that the law does not allow heterosexual couples like them to enter into civil partnerships. I hope they succeed, but suspect they may have to wait for parliament to change the law.
- Back with our President, Sir James told a Family Justice Council event in March that judges should not be called upon to justify their own cases, or other judges’ cases, except in the context of the Court of Appeal. His comments, which really shouldn’t need saying, were in response to a question from the audience on the judiciary’s involvement in serious case reviews, but were also particularly relevant in light of the attacks the judiciary faced from the press and politicians following the High Court’s Brexit ruling a few months earlier.
- Also in March we heard that the unpaid child maintenance backlog in the UK was £3.8 billion. A staggering, but sadly unsurprising, figure, that couldn’t possibly demonstrate more clearly the utter failure of the child support maintenance scheme. Just stop for a moment to consider how many children suffering the effects of financial hardship that that figure represents.
- One of our President’s major initiatives during his tenure was the ‘transparency guidance’ that he issued in January 2014, requiring the publication of more family court judgments, in order to address perceptions, especially in the media, that the family courts are a system of secret and unaccountable justice. In March Cardiff University’s School of Law and Politics published research that indicated that the application of the guidance across the country was ‘patchy’, with some courts appearing to publish judgments regularly, and others never at all. The research found that judges were struggling to find the time to publish judgments safely, without identifying the children and families involved. Certainly, I have found myself that far fewer judgments are being published now than in the months after the guidance was published. So much for good intentions (although as a lawyer I am relieved not to have to wade through so many judgments that are of no value as precedents).
- It was in about April that another family case hit the headlines of the national media. This was the tragic case of Charlie Gard. We all know what happened, so I’ll limit my comment here to this: my deepest sympathy goes to Charlie’s parents, who no doubt are still struggling to come to terms with their loss, especially at this time of the year. We should also spare a thought for all of the people in the medical and legal professions who dealt with this extremely difficult case with such care and dedication.
- As with the calls for no-fault divorce, the calls for the introduction of basic property rights for cohabitants was a recurring theme of 2017. In April, for example, we heard the unsurprising news that a third of cohabitants believed they had the same rights as married couples, or did not know. The news prompted further calls for reform of the law relating to cohabitees, which culminated in ‘Cohabitation Awareness Week’ in November.
- 2017 had a few bad things to say about McKenzie friends, particularly of the paid variety (see June in part 2 of this review, and September in part 3). In April we heard that paid McKenzie Friends associated with fathers’ rights groups play on the “uncertainty and sense of victimhood” of separating fathers. Not surprising, I’m afraid. The simple fact is: if you want professional behaviour, you obviously need to instruct a professional.