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A week in family law: Financial courts, divorce reform and statistics

As I discussed in this post yesterday, Mr Justice Mostyn, the National Lead Judge for the Financial Remedies Court project, which aims to establish specialist Financial Remedies Courts across the country, has issued a press release updating on the present status of the project. He says that the extension of the project from its single original pilot zone in Birmingham to eight new zones has been a success, and that the project had been “greeted enthusiastically” by lawyers doing financial remedies work”. He explained that the plan is to digitalise all financial remedies work, for which the necessary IT development is well under way, being in use in some areas with a plan to spread it rapidly and widely. He also said that they expect to make further announcements in the coming months to extend the project to geographical areas not currently covered. As I said in my post, this could be good news for all concerned: judges, lawyers and, above all, litigants.

As I also discussed here, in this post, the Nuffield Foundation has published a briefing note regarding the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, which aims to introduce a system of no-fault divorce. The Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on Tuesday. The Bill proposes to retain irretrievable breakdown as the sole ground for divorce, but to remove the requirement to establish a ‘fact’ such as adultery or behaviour. Instead, one or both parties would be required to file a statement of irretrievable breakdown which would be confirmed after a minimum waiting period of six months. The Foundation said that this change is consistent with evidence from a wide-ranging empirical study of how the divorce law in England and Wales is currently operating. They conclude that the Bill represents a pragmatic reform that reflects evidence from a previous study they carried out in 2017 that looked in detail at how the divorce law in this country is operating. They conclude that the reform “will remove the problematic elements of an archaic law and introduce a more transparent, fairer and less harmful process for families undergoing a difficult transition.” Precisely.

A number of media outlets latched on to one point arising from the second reading, that the Lord Chancellor David Gauke admitted that the new law was likely to lead to a ‘spike’ in the number of marriages ending. Rather than being ammunition for those who oppose the Bill, this is actually just a statement of the obvious. Of course there is likely to be a small spike caused by people who would previously have had to wait for two or five years’ separation issuing divorce proceedings under the new law. However, that will only be a temporary occurrence. There is no reason to believe that the change will lead to a continued increase in the divorce rate, and that is borne out by evidence from other countries that have made a similar change.

And finally, it’s quarterly statistics time, with child support statistics gushing forth from the Department for Work and Pensions (in three varieties, relating to the Child Maintenance Options information service, the old Child Support Agency and the current Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’)), and family court and legal aid statistics flowing from the Ministry of Justice. And what nuggets of wisdom can we divine from this deluge of facts and figures? Well, the following points may be of some interest to readers. As to child support, we are told that 67% of parents due to pay child maintenance through the CMS’s Collect & Pay service (whereby the CMS collect and manage the payments between the parents) paid ‘some’ maintenance in the quarter ending March 2019, up from 60% one year earlier. As to the family court we are told that 66,340 new cases started in in January to March 2019, up 5% on January to March 2018, due to a 6% rise in matrimonial cases (44% of all case starts, mainly divorce proceedings), and an increase in domestic violence (15%) and private law children (12%) cases. Most notably, we are told that the average time for a divorce from petition to Decree Nisi was 33 weeks, and to Decree Absolute was 59 weeks (apparently a record), up 6 and 8 weeks respectively compared to the equivalent quarter in 2018. And lastly, perhaps the most interesting point arising from the legal aid statistics is that Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (‘MIAM’) volumes were 9% higher in January to March 2019 than in the same quarter of 2018, and mediation starts were also 10% higher, than the same period last year.

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, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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