A week in family law – domestic abuse, Cafcass figures, oh – and a divorce bill

Family Law|June 14th 2019

I thought it was going to be another quiet week for family law news, and then the last story appeared…

But first, the other news. As I reported here, Research by Birmingham University has found that women who experience domestic abuse are three times more likely to develop a serious mental illness. The study was based on 18,547 women who had told their GP of domestic abuse they had experienced. They were compared with a group of more than 74,000 women of a similar age who had no experience of domestic abuse. The study found that domestic abuse survivors were twice as likely to develop anxiety and three times as likely to develop depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Dr Joht Singh Chandan, lead author and academic clinical fellow in public health at the University of Birmingham, said: “Considering how common domestic abuse is, it is important to understand how strongly the two are connected and consider whether there are possible opportunities to improve the lives of women affected by domestic abuse.” The only thing I would add is “and men”.

Moving on, Sally Challen, who killed her husband with a hammer in 2010, will not face a retrial, after prosecutors accepted her manslaughter plea. In 2011 Mrs Challen was found guilty of murdering her husband, and jailed for life. However, she appealed against her conviction on the basis of fresh evidence, namely a diagnosis by a consultant forensic psychiatrist that she was suffering from two previously undiagnosed disorders at the time of the killing, and fresh evidence as to alleged coercive control by her husband. In February this year the appeal was allowed by the Court of Appeal, which quashed the conviction and ordered that she should face a retrial for murder. However, prosecutors accepted a manslaughter plea on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and she was sentenced to nine years and four months for manslaughter, but walked free due to time served. Mr Justice Edis said the killing came after “years of controlling, isolating and humiliating conduct” by her husband. The outcome has been welcomed by many, who believe that it shows that the law recognises the effects of psychological abuse upon victims. It has also been criticised by others, who say that Mrs Challen could have simply walked away, that it implies that her actions were proportionate to his, and that it turned a killer into a hero. Hmm. I’m not sure that she would consider herself to be a hero, and we must not forget that she was found guilty of manslaughter, for which she served a lengthy sentence, so it can hardly be said that she ‘got away with it’.

Next, the latest figures for care applications and private law demand, for May 2019, have been published by Cafcass, and the picture of a long-term downward trend in care cases, and a long-term upward trend in private law cases continues. In that month the service received a total of 1,152 new care applications, 11.5% lower (149 applications) than May 2018. As to private law demand, Cafcass received a total of 3,950 new private law cases, 8.5% (311 cases) higher than May 2018.

And finally, that big story, and arguably the biggest family law story for fifty years, is of course the introduction of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (‘dissolution’ of course referring to dissolution of civil partnerships, and ‘separation’ referring to judicial separation) to Parliament (i.e. the House of Commons) yesterday by the Lord Chancellor David Gauke (you can read his statement here). If passed, the Bill will finally bring in a system of no-fault divorce, thereby ending the ‘blame game’. The Bill, which is actually quite short (you can read it here), does three things: it replaces the requirement to prove either a conduct or separation ‘fact’ with a requirement to file a statement of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage (couples can opt to make this a joint statement); it removes the possibility of contesting the decision to divorce as a statement will be conclusive evidence that the marriage has broken down irretrievably; and it introduces a new minimum period of 20 weeks from the start of proceedings to conditional order stage. David Gauke commented: “Marriage will always be a vitally important institution in society, but when a relationship breaks down it cannot be right that the law adds fuel to the fire by incentivising couples to blame each other. By removing the unnecessary mudslinging the current process can needlessly rake up, we’ll make sure the law plays its part in allowing couples to move on as amicably and constructively as possible.” The Bill is apparently to have its Second Reading in the Commons today, so it may be passed sooner than previously thought. I suspect that I, and others, may have something more to say about the Bill in the coming days…

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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