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2023 In Review – Reflections on the Year in Family Law

2023: A Year in Review

Julian Hawkhead, Managing Partner, Reflects on the Year

It has become something of a tradition for me to write a note as we draw towards the end of the year to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months. Doesn’t the time fly by? This year I’m delighted to be joined by a few colleagues around the firm who have put down some thoughts on what has stood out for them over the course of 2023.

At Stowe, it has been quite a year again! I’m trying to find some clever way of linking “Stowe” and “grow” together but have failed. Nevertheless, yet again we have continued to cement our place as the most dominant family law practice in the country. We saw our colleague numbers increase to over 360 with a total of 178 lawyers serving 88 locations around the country. Yes, that’s right, we have 88 office locations, adding 22 new locations including those from Watson Thomas and Crisp & Co. this year. It has been an absolute pleasure to get to know our new colleagues from those two firms, to learn about their ways of working and what they have done to make themselves successful to continue improving our own Stowe Way of Working.

Our client numbers also increased by 25% and by early December we had over 4,000 progressing matters underway as we continue to strive to support more and more people.

As you will read below, there have been some interesting developments in our world of family law and it will be interesting to see what 2024 and the likelihood of a general election will bring to the legal landscape. Cohabitation law reform is long overdue and regardless of where you sit on the spectrum of views as to the differences between marital type relationships and cohabiting relationships there is no doubt that reform is required to at least give greater clarity, to simplify the law and provide some core rights to individuals who find themselves in financially vulnerable situations when their relationships break down.

Joanna Newton on The Rise of the Legal Age of Marriage

In February this year, the legal age of marriage rose to 18. This has meant that 16- and 17-year-olds who were previously allowed to marry with parental consent are no longer allowed to marry or enter a civil partnership in England and Wales.

As of 27th February, it is now a criminal offence to arrange a marriage for under 18-year-olds under any circumstances. The offence is now punishable by 7 years in prison.

The idea behind this new law is to better protect children from being forced into underage marriages and protect them from abuse and coercion. The change is to crack down on forced marriages which can cause lasting psychological, and sometimes physical, damage on a child. It is also part of the government’s continuing commitment to tackling violence against women and girls.

Prior to the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Minimum Age) Act 2023, the law had been unchanged since 1949 and had legitimised child marriage with children aged 16 and 17 permitted to marry with their parents’ consent.

The mechanism of parental consent which existed under that law, whilst meant to be a safeguard, has, in some cases, proved to be a vehicle for parental abuse.

This change is a welcome relief and over the coming years we will hopefully see it having a considerable impact reducing the number of forced marriages and violence against girls in particular.

Gemma Davison on Changes to Fertility Legislation

Earlier this year, the government announced that there would be a change to fertility law which aims to reduce the discrimination that female same-sex couples face when they are looking to conceive via reciprocal IVF (where one woman provides her egg and the other carries the child). It will also encompass a change for same-sex couples where one or both partners have HIV but the viral load is undetectable.

Female same-sex couples will no longer be required to have an additional screening for infectious diseases (including rubella, hepatitis B and C) which will remove this extra barrier not faced by heterosexual couples and reduce costs by up to £1000.

For same-sex couples with undetectable HIV viral loads, the change in legislation will mean that the couple will have access to IVF treatment, including known sperm or egg cell donation to friends or relatives.

These changes will hopefully work to reduce the inequality that exists between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples regarding fertility options and treatment. However, there is still a way to go.

In August 2022 as part of the Women’s Health Strategy, the government committed to removing all financial barriers for same-sex couples that are not faced by heterosexual couples. We are still awaiting this change. I hope to see more progress in reducing discrimination in the fertility space and more support of this method of parenthood in 2024.

Megan Brookfield on ‘Love bombing’ being Recognised as a Sign of Abuse by CPS

In April this year, the Crown Prosecution Service updated their guidance on controlling and coercive behaviour to include the term ‘love bombing’. The guidance now advises prosecutors on the range of tactics perpetrators of abuse can use against their victim and discusses love bombing and what this entails. Love bombing is a phrase used to describe a scenario whereby the abuser will periodically carry out over-the-top loving acts in between other behaviour to confuse and control their victim. It is most commonly seen in the early stages of a relationship.

The update is a positive step. It has highlighted the diverse ways in which perpetrators can exact control of their victim. Furthermore, it provides a degree of clarity on the role of love bombing and how it is a coercive tactic. It also gives family lawyers a legal framework with which to support clients and indeed when obtaining protective orders from the family court.

There are still numerous challenges to face when proving coercive control. The updates in legal framework have certainly improved this, but it is clear that more work needs to be done to help and support survivors and their families, particularly for those seeking to leave their abusive relationship.

Ashley Le Core on Child Arrangements in International Divorces

Most of us will have seen something about the divorce of Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner earlier this year. Their divorce raised some very interesting points in the family law space, including which jurisdiction should accept the divorce proceedings and associated financial remedy proceedings. This is particularly important to consider, as different jurisdictions will provide two differing ways of handling assets, which could favour one party over the other.

However, most of the media drama of the divorce has been specifically about child arrangements, raising the issue of who gets the kids in international divorces, as Turner is British and Jonas is American. From media reports, it appeared that they had planned to settle their two young daughters in England. Initial divorce proceedings, however, saw some issues on this front, including accusations of child abduction.

Unlike many divorces, these parents are of course very wealthy and therefore the reality is that wherever the determination is made that the children shall primarily reside, the other parent should be more than able to purchase an appropriate property in that country and therefore, the impact on the children will be drastically reduced. This is of course not available to every party in such cases.

No absolute certain details are known about the long-term arrangements in relation to this divorce at this stage, but in the interim, the girls will travel between the UK and the US. In international divorces generally, it is unlikely the court would expect children to be travelling between countries on a regular basis, especially if they are of school age. In these cases, the primary focus has to be their schooling.  The onus would therefore be on one of the parents to do more of the travelling and to have a base in the relevant jurisdiction. The children then spend more quality time with their parents over longer periods such as school holidays.

The Jonas/Turner divorce has been an interesting study in the various complex aspects involved in international and multi-jurisdictional divorces and has particularly drawn attention to what happens to children in such circumstances.

A Final Sign Off

There is little I can add to what has been said so eloquently above and a huge thanks to them for taking the time to share their thoughts. Family law is always evolving whether that is to reflect the changing values of our society, to adapt to the political or economic climate or to anticipate what factors such as new (and what can seem scary) technology. As a leadership team we are constantly surveying the horizon to see what might be coming up, whether that is a possible change of government or some new AI innovation. Whatever happens I do believe that 2024 will be great and exciting year.

Wishing you and your families a safe, restful and joyous festive season.

Julian, and all at Stowe Family Law.

The blog team at Stowe is a group of writers based across our family law offices who share their advice on the wellbeing and emotional aspects of divorce or separation from personal experience. As well as pieces from our family law solicitors, guest contributors also regularly contribute to share their knowledge.

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