A week in family law: Divorce reform, forced marriage, and yet another call for an inquiry

Family Law|May 31st 2019

I will begin with a short trip across the Irish Sea, for some good news. People in the Republic of Ireland have voted overwhelmingly to liberalise their divorce laws. The Irish constitution currently states that spouses must be separated for four of the previous five years before they can get divorced. However, 82.1% of voters backed a change to that law, in a referendum held last Friday. The Irish parliament will now decide a new separation period before divorce is allowed, the Irish government having indicated prior to the referendum that it believed a two-year separation period (i.e. a minimum of two out of the preceding three years) was long enough. The Irish Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan, who previously proposed a liberalisation of the law in 2016, commented: “I think it’s an emphatic, unequivocal result, and, even though we have a very low marital breakdown in Ireland, it just demonstrates the amount of people who stand in solidarity with them.” Excellent.

Back in this country, new figures released by the Forced Marriage Unit (‘FMU’) reveal that the number of forced marriage cases they dealt with jumped to a record high last year. The FMU dealt with 1,764 cases in 2018, an increase of 47% over the year before. The Home Office said that the sharp increase in cases does not “necessarily represent” a spike in prevalence, but rather a greater awareness of forced marriage being a crime, and an improved data recording process. Of the cases dealt with by the FMU in 2018, 75% involved female victims and 17% involved male victims, with the sex of the victim being unknown in the remaining cases. Where the age was known, 17.7% of cases involved victims aged 15 years old or less, and a further 14.9% involved 16 and 17 year olds. You can read the full statistics here.

Moving on, no sooner do I voice my concerns over the constant calls for changes to the family justice system than another one crops up (as I said in my post sometimes it seems as if hardly a day passes by without the announcement or call for some new inquiry, review, initiative, or campaign for change). The next such call has come from “a group of [37] concerned family and human rights lawyers, working in-house in women’s organisations, in private practice and at the Bar”, who are asking for an independent inquiry into treatment of domestic abuse in family courts. Apparently, whilst they welcome the announcement last week by the Ministry of Justice that a panel of experts will review how the family courts protect children and parents in cases of domestic abuse and other serious offences, they do not think that a 12-week review is “enough time to properly evaluate the reasons why the system is currently placing children and victims at unacceptable risk.” They say that “any inquiry must be independent if justice is to be seen to be done”, and set out a shopping list of 12 “possible improvements to the family justice system for the inquiry to consider”. I particularly like the last, rather hopeful, one: “Legal aid for early legal advice needs to be reintroduced for ALL separating parents who are financially eligible. Cases that do not involve domestic abuse or safeguarding issues could then be diverted from the court system to mediation.” Good luck with that. If you wish you can read the whole letter here.

And finally, a salutary tale for any litigant tempted to tip the scales of justice in their favour by harassing the judge dealing with their case. The High Court has dismissed an appeal by a couple who were jailed for harassing a judge in adoption proceedings. Gary Hilson and Tracy McCarthy were found guilty of harassing Her Honour Judge Carol Atkinson and given a 16-week jail sentence by the Crown Court. The harassment included sending emails to the judge’s personal email address, making comments in the presence of court security staff to the effect that they knew the judges’ home address, and making comments in court which indicated they knew the movements of the judge’s husband and daughter. The High Court said that these incidents were capable of amounting to harassment, being designed to harass and intimidate the judge in relation to her public duty to the prejudice of the proper administration of justice, and therefore dismissed the appeal. Quite right too. You can read the full judgment here.

Have a good weekend.

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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