Family law and the Coronavirus: a few thoughts

Family Law | 23 Mar 2020 0

I am reminded of the title of the seventeenth-century ballad The World Turned Upside Down. Following the daily news, it seems as if all the old certainties have been swept away by a small infectious agent that replicates inside the living cells of an organism.

It is, of course, true that the Coronavirus will change many things, at least temporarily (and perhaps some forever). But life goes on and we must adapt to those changes. I, therefore, felt that it might be useful to set out a few brief thoughts upon how I think the virus may affect family law.

So here, in no particular order, are some of the things that have been going through my head about family law and Coronavirus:

‘Slowing down’ of the justice system

We have of course already seen this. The justice system must, of course, continue to operate, but in the short-term, it is likely to be in a very different, and reduced, form.

Urgent matters, such as urgent children applications and domestic violence injunction applications, will no doubt continue to be dealt with, but we should expect many non-urgent matters to be delayed significantly, and some perhaps until the epidemic or at least the worst of it, will be over. Of course, that may depend upon how long the epidemic will be with us – I suspect that if it is likely to be for many months, as is now being suggested, that even non-urgent matters may have to continue.

Of course, some of the systems already operates online, such as divorce, and that will surely continue, although it may slow a little if it suffers staff shortages due to the virus. We can expect other areas of family law to be pushed online ahead of schedule, too.

And then there is the idea of remote hearings, which are already being used. There will no doubt be many more of these, but I foresee problems.

Some parties and witnesses may have limited or no internet access. Arranging numerous parties, lawyers and witnesses to be online simultaneously may be problematic.

And what about the reliability of the system they use? I suspect many remote hearings may be rather frustrating on-off affairs.

Heightened domestic abuse risks

This has, of course, already been highlighted by others, including here by Shanika Varga-Haynes, a solicitor based at Stowe Family Law’s Leeds office.

Many of us are having to stay at home. If you are already in an abusive relationship, this may obviously put you in extreme danger. If you fear for your safety, read Shanika’s post for advice.

And I suppose I should say that the present situation could result in further abusive relationships, as couples under stress are forced to live together.

I’m afraid I am quite unqualified to advise upon how to manage a relationship in such circumstances, but relationship counselling is still available, and the charity Relate has put together some advice, here.

International travel restrictions

Obviously, this will have a serious impact upon any family law matter that has an international element, for example, child abduction. All I can say is that if you are in this situation you will need to check the latest position, both from the UK authorities and the authorities of the other country or countries involved.

Effect on money markets

Another obvious one. The money markets have tumbled, seriously reducing the value of assets. This will, of course, have to be taken into account when considering financial settlements, although hopefully, the markets will bounce back when this is all over. Meanwhile, take the best financial advice you can!

It is also possible that recent settlements may be affected if assets have devalued significantly. I think that cases in which the courts would be prepared to re-open settlements are likely to be very rare, but if you think yours is one of them, take some legal advice.

Inability to pay maintenance

Many people will find themselves out of work, at least temporarily, or on much reduced hours. Obviously, this may mean that they are unable to meet maintenance commitments. If this is the case then they may need to seek a variation in the maintenance. They should also, of course, inform the other party, who may need to seek benefits if their income is seriously reduced.

Child arrangements

As I write this, there is no restriction on movement, but we are being advised to distance one another. Many children, of course, share their time between the two households of their separated parents. Should such arrangements continue? They do, of course, increase the risk of transmitting the virus. Parents may need to work together to minimise the risk.

Emergency powers and human rights

As other far more eminent lawyers have pointed out, the emergency powers that the Government is proposing could well impinge upon our human rights, for example, the right to family life. I am no human rights lawyer, but I suspect that if that impingement is proportional and limited in time then any claim for breach of human rights would be unlikely to succeed. However, things may change.

Effect on children of reduced applications

Lastly, a point I made briefly here on Friday: I suspect that whilst the virus is with us, there will be a reduced number of children applications being made, both public and private.

As I said on Friday, I wonder how many children’s lives will be adversely affected by that.

Get in touch

If you would like any advice on the issues raised by family law and the Coronavirus please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here. 

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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