The other day the excellent website Family Law Week published a list of family law Bills before Parliament. I was aware, dimly or otherwise, of most of the Bills they list, but a couple of them had slipped under my radar. I was also surprised just how many such Bills there are currently trudging their way through the arcane processes of Parliament (twelve are listed), having not previously stopped to add them up. We shouldn’t get too excited, however, as only one is a government bill and therefore likely to be passed (although another is supported by the government). The others are private members’ bills, most of which fall at one of the many hurdles they have to jump before they pass the Royal Assent finishing line.
At least two of the Bills I’ve written about here previously: Baroness Deech’s Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill, which aims to amend the law relating to financial settlements following divorce, and the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc) Bill, which aims to give heterosexual couples the right to enter civil partnerships (I’m not sure I realised that there are, in fact, two Bills with this aim, the other being Baroness Burt of Solihull’s rather more informatively-titled Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) (Mixed Sex Couples) Bill). There is also yet another Bill relating to civil partnerships: the Civil Partnership Act 2004 (Amendment) (Sibling Couples) Bill which, as you may guess, aims to extend civil partnerships to sibling couples who make a home together, an idea that was rejected when the original Civil Partnership Act was debated.
Two other Bills that I was certainly aware of and that I may have mentioned here before are the Child Maintenance (Assessment of Parents’ Income) Bill and the Cohabitation Rights Bill. The former intends “to equalise the assessment and enforcement of child maintenance arrangements of children of self-employed parents with those of children of other employed parents” (good luck with that), and the latter intends to give basic property rights to cohabitees, a matter close to my heart.
And then there are the two Bills that I wanted to concentrate on in this post.
Firstly, the Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill. This is the government Bill I referred to above. It aims to bring in a small but very sensible reform, which could be of great significance to certain victims of domestic violence and abuse. To explain it fully I would need to go into the detail of the relevant landlord and tenant law, something that I have not really studied since I was at Law College. Suffice to say that some council tenants have lifetime (‘secure’) tenancies, meaning that they can remain in the property as long as they wish, usually unless they are at fault in some way, such as not paying their rent or causing a nuisance. Such tenancies are no longer usually granted. This means that if a person has to leave a property subject to a secure tenancy in order to escape domestic abuse then, as things stand, any new tenancy they are granted will be less secure. The Bill aims to do away with this disadvantage by stating that any new tenancy should be a secure lifetime tenancy.
The other Bill I wanted to discuss in a little more detail is the Courts (Abuse of Process) Bill, which was introduced by Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts. The Bill aims “to prevent abuse of process in civil and family courts”, including creating “offences when certain civil and family court orders are breached”, and amending “the rights and duties of certain parties to prevent abuse of process in civil and family court”. Unfortunately, the Bill is still being prepared for publication, so the only details available are what Ms Roberts said in Parliament last December when she presented the Bill. As she explained:
“The purpose of this Bill is to limit the ability of perpetrators of primarily domestic abuse, stalking and harassment to use—indeed, to misuse or abuse—family and civil courts as a cynical and calculated method of causing further distress and exercising deliberate control over the actions of their victims.”
Ms Roberts said that research showed that in a survey of 122 victims of stalking and domestic abuse, 55% of the victims had court proceedings taken out against them by their abusers, making vexatious and baseless claims against them and causing the victims further distress and expense. The Bill will give the court the power to dismiss any meritless applications where it is apparent that their purpose is to harass or distress victims. It will also ‘beef up’ the sanctions available for a breach of a restraining order, including introducing a presumption of custody in the event of multiple breaches. It will be interesting to see the detail of this Bill when it is published.
As I indicated at the outset, many of these bills will fall by the wayside. However, hopefully some of the better ideas will be passed, even if they are contained within later government bills, rather than in their present form – very often, private members’ bills can be a good way of bringing ideas to the attention of government, even if they have no hope of being passed themselves. Whatever, it is good to know that there are a number of our representatives in Parliament who are taking a serious interest in the reform of family law.