What will be the next great family law reform?

Divorce|Family Law|February 18th 2019

One should never of course count one’s chickens, especially when it comes to the promises of politicians, but let us just for one moment assume that the long battle to bring in no-fault divorce has been won. What, then, will be the next great family law reform? What do people want in terms of changes to the substantive law (rather than just to the procedure), and which of those things is likely to happen?

There are, of course, other reforms in the pipeline apart from the introduction of no-fault divorce.

The battle to bring in civil partnerships for same-sex couples, for example, also seems to be almost over. It may not affect so many as no-fault divorce, and the battle may not have taken anything like as long, but it was certainly hard-fought, also going right up to the Supreme Court last year.

And the law on domestic violence/abuse is also in the process of being overhauled, hopefully for the better.

But it is not all good news. Things may be happening on the legal aid front, but the battle there is essentially lost. We will never return to a system where everyone has equal access to the law, irrespective of their means. Sadly, the law will for the foreseeable future be a two-tier system, with only the better off receiving a proper service.

There are, of course, other changes under way, such as the introduction of Specialist Financial Remedy Courts, but that is a procedural reform, rather than a reform of the law itself. Similarly, digital ways of doing things, for example issuing divorce proceedings, are just changes to procedure.

So divorce, civil partnership, domestic abuse and legal aid do not seem likely candidates for further reform. What about other areas?

There are some calls for reform of the law relating to financial remedies on divorce, notably from Baroness Deech, who is seeking to push her Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill through Parliament. But the Bill is certainly not generally supported amongst family lawyers, having been strongly criticised by several eminent members of the profession. Whilst many do think that reform in this area is needed, there seems to be little consensus as to exactly what form the reform might take. It seems to me that any reform here is likely to be piecemeal, rather than anything that will make dramatic changes, in the way that no-fault divorce will. But then again, I could be wrong.

Moving on, there are, of course, still many shrill voices calling for further reform to the law on arrangements for children following parental separation (as I suspect there always will be), but there doesn’t really seem to me to be any great will for such reforms amongst family lawyers, and those currently in power. There has, of course, been much tinkering in this area over recent decades, and maybe it is time for a period of consolidation. Whatever, whilst there are probably few who think the present system is perfect, there again seems little consensus as to exactly how it might be further improved.

Which brings me to the introduction of property rights for cohabitees. Here, rather like with the introduction of no-fault divorce, there is great support for such a reform amongst family lawyers. There does not, however, seem to be much current appetite amongst the powers that be for this reform. They did discuss the possibility a few years back, but then kicked it into the long grass. Still, perhaps we family lawyers, free of the burden of promoting no-fault divorce, and flush with our success in that area, may be able to mount a similar campaign in this area? Once again, I suspect that the battle may be long and hard, but it would certainly be worth it.

Or maybe the next great family law reform will be none of these things. Maybe it will be something entirely new, something that will revolutionise the system in a way beyond my limited imagination.

One thing is certain, though. Whatever changes there may be, there will always be calls for more. That is how it has always been, and that is surely how it should be.

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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Comment(1)

  1. Graham Parry says:

    I agree with the Baroness that the financial remedies / ancillary relief proceedings need looking at urgently.

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