A million words …and hopefully the odd wise one

Family Law|March 25th 2019

The other night whilst waiting for sleep to overtake me I was idly wondering how many words I had written for the Stowe Family Law Blog (don’t ask me why!). I tried to make the calculation in my head, but it was too much for my tired mind. So the next morning I got out the calculator.

I began writing for Stowe Family Law in late 2013. Since then, I have written five posts a week, excluding Xmas/New Year week, bank holidays, and one week when I had the flu. In total that comes to about 1,350 posts. Taking an average of 750 words per post, that comes to some 1,012,000 words. Now, I realise that that is a very rough calculation, but it is still a lot of words.

What on Earth have all of those words been about? Well, mostly about developments in family law: news, legislation and, above all, cases. And what developments there have been over those five and a half years. In fact, so great have they been that the whole family law landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. I really don’t think that there has ever been a period of such rapid change. And, as we will see in a moment, it is not over.

When I began writing here we were still trying to understand the effect of the legal aid cuts that had occurred earlier in 2013, removing legal aid from most types of private family law work. In the following six years all of our worst fears have been realised: most litigants unrepresented, many cases with no lawyers at all to help the court, court lists lengthening, more delays, more stress for judges, litigants being taken advantage of by unqualified charlatans, litigants struggling to represent themselves (frequently against the inequality of the other party being represented), and often people deciding that they would rather not go to court at all, than have to go through the process without legal help. These have all, sadly, been recurring themes in my posts here.

But the family law world when I began writing here was so different in many ways from how it is now.

Who, for example, can remember a world in which the word ‘transparency’ referred only to whether you could see through something? All that changed early in 2014 when our then President Sir James Munby introduced his ‘Transparency Guidance’, supposedly requiring most family law judgments to be published, to better inform the public of what goes on in the family courts. Now, for better or worse, ‘transparency’ is a word that you can hardly avoid in family law circles.

Moving on to issues of rather greater significance, who now can remember a time when same-sex couples could not marry? In fact, that was the case as recently as March 2014, when the first marriages between couples of the same gender took place.

And who can now remember a time when we didn’t use the term ‘child arrangements order’ when referring to what were previously ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ orders. Since 2014 we have had to get used to rather more awkward terms such as ‘lives with’ orders and ‘spends time with’ orders. Such is progress.

And the other big change of 2014 was the introduction of the Family Court. For the first time, we would actually have a court dedicated to family law, rather than have to share courts used for other civil, or even criminal, law purposes. Of course, this did not mean that family courts would have their own buildings. That, of course, would have been too expensive. We have therefore had to settle for the rather cheaper option of simply changing a few nameplates and letter headings. Litigants still use the same buildings, and most would probably not notice the difference.

But there were more changes for the courts to follow. In 2015, we were given regional divorce centres. Another cost-cutting exercise, this meant that no longer could you go to a local court to issue your divorce. Instead, you had to use a regional centre, which could be hundreds of miles away. And, surprise, surprise, the centres were over-worked and under-staffed, resulting in inevitable delays to the divorce process. Progress again.

Other changes to the courts have included the introduction of specialist courts to deal with financial remedy cases and, of course, the introduction of the online court. Both of these will, hopefully, prove to be of benefit.

Back to the law itself, there have been several notable Supreme Court cases dealing with family law issues. In particular, we had the Owens divorce case and the Steinfeld & Keidan civil partnership case, both of which had a huge effect upon the future of family law: the forthcoming introduction of no-fault divorce and civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples.

So writing for Stowe Family Law has been a tumultuous ride, and one which I have enjoyed immensely. I know that some people have taken exception to some of the things I have said here. That’s not a problem – it is the nature of family law that it evokes different views, often very strongly held. I hope, though, that at least some of my words here have displayed at least a modicum of wisdom, and that readers have found them informative. Thank you for reading them (or at least some of them!).

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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