A Week In Family Law: A Domestic Abuse Bill, the myth of common law marriage, and more

Family Law|Industry News|January 25th 2019

And what a busy week it’s been!

First up, the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration Etc) Bill received its second reading in the House of Lords. The Bill, which provides, amongst other things, that opposite sex couples may enter into a civil partnership, will now proceed to the committee stage in the House of Lords.

The big news was the unveiling by the government of its draft Domestic Abuse Bill, which it calls “the most comprehensive package ever to tackle domestic abuse.” The Bill is “aimed at supporting victims and their families and pursuing offenders.” Its main provisions include the first ever statutory government definition of domestic abuse to specifically include economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse; the establishment of a Domestic Abuse Commissioner to drive the response to domestic abuse issues; the introduction of new Domestic Abuse Protection Notices and Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to further protect victims and place restrictions on the actions of offenders; and the prohibition of the cross-examination of victims by their abusers in the family courts. For further details of the Bill see this brief summary I wrote here on Monday. The Bill has been generally welcomed by interested parties. Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said that it “has the potential to create a step change in the national response” to domestic abuse, and Suzanne Jacob OBE, Chief Executive of the domestic abuse charity SafeLives, said: “We welcome the government’s set of proposals, particularly putting a greater focus on perpetrator accountability, both through the legal system, civil powers, and programmes that seek to change abusive behaviour.” Let us just hope that the present political uncertainty does not derail the Bill (the prohibition of the cross-examination of victims provision has already been delayed a year and a half by the last general election).

The next big story was not actually news, at least not to all family lawyers. This year’s British Social Attitudes Survey, carried out by The National Centre for Social Research, found that almost half of all people in England and Wales mistakenly believe that unmarried couples who live together have a common law marriage and enjoy the same rights as couples that are legally married. The findings reveal that 46% of the population are under the wrong impression that cohabiting couples form a common law marriage – a figure that remains largely unchanged over the last fourteen years (47% in 2005), despite a significant increase in the number of cohabiting couples. In contrast, only 41% of respondents to the survey rightly say cohabiting couples are not in a common law marriage. Interestingly, the survey showed that people are significantly more likely to believe in common law marriage when they have children – 55% of households with children think that common law marriage exists, whilst only 41% of households without any children do so. Commenting on the figures Anne Barlow, Professor of Family Law and Policy at the University of Exeter, which commissioned the survey, said: “Cohabiting couples now account for the fastest growing type of household and the number of opposite sex cohabiting couple families with dependent children has more than doubled in the last decade. Yet whilst people’s attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation have shifted, policy has failed to keep up with the times. The result is often severe financial hardship for the more vulnerable party in the event of separation, such as women who have interrupted their career to raise children. Therefore, it’s absolutely crucial that we raise awareness of the difference between cohabitation, civil partnership and marriage and any differences in rights that come with each.” Exactly. We must continue to try to raise awareness, and also press for basic property rights for (former) cohabitees.

And finally, almost unnoticed amongst all the other news, this has been Family Mediation Week, an annual campaign organised by The Family Mediators Association which “aims to raise awareness of mediation and how it can help separating families manage their issues collaboratively and productively.” For further information, I would refer the reader to the series of posts here on the subject this week from Stowe Family Law partner Graham Coy, who is himself a member of the Association.

Have a good weekend.

Author: John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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