This year I will keep my review of the year mercifully short. Not only will I limit it to one post, I am only going to mention my top five stories of the year, stories that will all make a difference to families and family justice in the future, one way or another. In fact, as I put this together I realised that I am not so much looking back, as looking forward. Accordingly, I decided that the best way to review 2018 was to peer into my trusty crystal ball to look at 2019…
Story 1: I see a future in which couples can divorce without animosity.
I will begin with the obvious one, and the one that I suspect most commentators would agree is the most significant family law story of the year: reform of the law on divorce.
The mists are clearing. I see a 69 year-old woman. She looks very sad and frustrated. She is desperate to rid herself of an unhappy marriage. However, she still has to wait another year before she can at last divorce her husband, on the basis that they have now been separated for five years. She had tried previously to divorce her husband on the basis of his ‘unreasonable behaviour’, but he defended her petition, and the law said she could not have her divorce, thereby trapping her in a loveless marriage.
The mists are returning. The woman fades, and then returns. This time she looks happy. The law has changed! She no longer has to blame her husband for the breakdown of the marriage! She just has to file a statement with the court saying that the marriage has broken down, and there is no longer any such thing as a defended divorce. She can finally get on with her life.
The woman’s name, of course, is Tini Owens.
Story 2: I see a future in which all are treated equally.
Somewhere in the cloudy depths of my crystal ball I spy a young couple. They are a very principled couple. They want to enter into a legal relationship, but they consider the institution of marriage to be patriarchal and sexist. Ideally, they would like to enter into a civil partnership, but until now that option has only been open to same-sex couples.
But what is this I see? The couple are undergoing a ceremony at a Register Office. Surely, they have not disregarded their principles and decided to marry after all?
I listen to what the Registrar says. This is not a marriage, but a civil partnership! The happy couple beam at one another as the ceremony ends.
Their names, of course, are Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan.
Story 3: Do I see a new course being plotted?
As I peer deeply into my crystal ball I see the fog clearing. I am at some sort of conference. The next speaker is being announced – it is the President of the Family Division!
But what is this? This is not the familiar face we know and love. This is a new face. It is, of course, the face of Sir Andrew McFarlane.
What will Sir Andrew say? Will he announce some new initiative to reform family justice? Will he plot a new course for those involved in the family justice system? Will he, indeed, be as ‘hands on’ as his predecessor? The audience eagerly await what he has to say.
Unfortunately, the fog returns as he begins to speak. We will just have to wait to hear what he says.
Story 4: I see a better way of dealing with financial disputes.
As I look into my crystal ball all is murky. I can barely make out what is taking place. It seems to be some sort of arcane ritual, with those present unsure what is going to happen to them.
Ah, then I realise what has happened. My crystal ball is stuck in the present, watching a financial remedies case being heard in a family court in 2018. I give the crystal a clean, and it moves forward a year.
That’s much better. The court is now run by specialists, who help most of the couples settle their cases by agreement. And those cases that don’t settle are decided in a far more predictable way, consistent with other such courts around the country.
Both lawyers and litigants in person have a better idea what to expect when they go to court to sort out financial remedy claims!
Story 5: I see a brave new paperless world.
The view in my crystal ball is hazy, but the haze is clearing. I see a lawyer sitting at her desk, her eyes fixed on the computer screen in front of her.
I can now make out the words on the screen. The lawyer is filing a divorce petition on behalf of her client.
I watch as she submits the petition. I look on jealously as it is accepted, remembering how long it used to take me to issue a divorce petition by post, and how the court would so often come up with some trivial reason to reject it, causing further delay.
The lawyer quickly turns to another client’s file on her computer (I can’t see any paper files anywhere). This time she is applying for a decree absolute. The application is gone in moments…
OK, I realise that I may be somewhat optimistic as far as the timing of some of these changes goes. We may, of course, have to wait until beyond 2019 for no-fault divorce, civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples, country-wide financial remedy courts and a fully digitised divorce system. Still, at least we can dream…