A review of family law in 2019
It’s that time again. A review of family law in 2019 as traditional as Christmas Day gluttony, Boxing Day hangovers and tasteless lights festooning the front of the house. But don’t fear – I will keep this mercifully short, looking only at the year’s events that affected the ‘big picture’.
Civil partnerships for all
I will start with a piece of positive news. Following a lengthy campaign and successful Supreme Court challenge by Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, the Civil Partnership, Marriages and Deaths (Registration) Act 2019, which provides for opposite-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships, received Royal Assent on the 26th of March. The necessary regulations have only just come into effect, so the first opposite-sex civil partnerships will not take place until the end of the month.
“I see this as a remarkable step forward to recognise the way in which families are now changing and empowering individuals to make the personal and financial choices associated with how they view their relationship.”
Exactly – it’s all about choice. Oh, and congratulations to Ms Steinfeld and Mr Keidan, who I understand will be amongst the first opposite-sex couples to tie the civil partnership knot.
Busy and slow courts
I’m sure not a single month has passed this year without some news or warning about how busy the family courts are.
For example, Cafcass has consistently told us that the number of private law children applications has increased each month, and only last week the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) released statistics indicating that the number of new cases started in family courts is up. Public law (i.e. care) applications are down, but back in October, the new Chief Executive of Cafcass Jacky Tiotto said that Cafcass had not seen a fall in work, despite it dealing with fewer care applications.
The MoJ’s statistics also told us that care proceedings are taking longer. They said that divorces are a little quicker, although I have seen a number of lawyers complaining on social media about delays at divorce centres.
Financial remedy courts move closer
The year has seen the expansion of specialist Financial Remedies Courts, which will hopefully cover the whole country before long. The courts should result in better and more consistent decision making in financial remedy cases, which in turn should make it a little easier to advise upon likely outcomes. That, in turn, may increase the number of cases that are settled. A win-win situation.
And so to the year’s missed opportunities, although hopefully the last two of these will be no more than delays to much-needed reform.
My first missed opportunity relates to the Government’s post-implementation review to assess the impact of the cuts to legal aid back in 2013, which was published back in February.
Whilst the review was accompanied by a (rather limited) ‘action plan’, it fell far short of recommending that legal aid for such things as private law family matters should be reinstated. Of course, no one really expected the Government to make such a U-turn, but we could at least hope.
Sadly, the Conservative Party made no commitment in its recent manifesto to at least introduce basic funding for early legal advice, as the other two main parties did, so it looks like less well-off litigants will have to continue to manage on their own for the foreseeable future.
The Domestic Abuse Bill and the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill.
The former was intended to introduce a number of important reforms to the law on domestic abuse, including the first statutory definition of domestic abuse, to specifically include economic abuse and controlling and manipulative non-physical abuse, and the prohibition of the cross-examination of alleged victims by their alleged abusers in the family courts. The latter was of course intended to finally introduce a system of no-fault divorce.
Unfortunately, both Bills were affected by the various shenanigans that went on in parliament and were ultimately ‘lost’ when the general election was declared. Happily, the new Government has indicated its intention to reintroduce the Bills as soon as possible, so hopefully, it will just be a matter of a little more time before we finally have these much-needed reforms.