Family law is a dynamic area and 2015 has been no exception with changes occurring in the law and also in how we practice.
The removal of legal aid, save for very limited circumstances, means that the Courts are now dealing with more litigants in person. That has had a knock-on impact for all Court users as cases take longer, are more difficult to resolve and demand a higher level of Court resources. In a drive to achieve greater efficiency, divorce centres opened in the summer albeit to cries that teething problems were causing delays and more tension between divorcing couples. Their introduction saw renewed calls for ‘no fault’ divorces to be introduced to ease the pressure as reported in the Grant Thornton Matrimonial Survey.
Another significant shift in practice came from the growth in Dispute Resolution (which includes mediation, collaboration and arbitration). In late November Resolution held a Dispute resolution week focussing on the needs of children (see their website). Dispute Resolution is another area in which we have strength with 5 mediators, 6 collaborative practitioners and 3 arbitrators in the team. Suzanne Kingston is the only family law solicitor trained to teach arbitration and our strength in DR has been recognised in our team being named Family/Matrimonial Mediation Firm of the Year by CityWealth. Dispute Resolution is attractive to many clients as it is a flexible tool and avoids delay. It also avoids the risk of their affairs being reported in the press given the current difference of opinion between High Court Judges on the issue of transparency and reporting of court hearings. In Hohn v Hohn, in which Diana Parker acted for the husband, significant restrictions on the reporting of commercially sensitive and private information were obtained.
To minimise the risk of litigation, we are also seeing a significant increase in the number of people entering into pre-nuptial agreements (whether domestic or international agreements). As Julian Lipson reported in The Times on 13 November 2015, they are becoming ‘the rule rather than the exception’.
Although the number of marriages per year is decreasing, this year saw the introduction in many countries worldwide of the right of same sex couples to marry. Suzanne Todd reported in the summer (see blog entry) that 24 of the 47 member states of Europe have introduced legislation permitting same sex marriages and legislation has been adopted more widely in many non-European countries. Those developments came at an interesting period particularly as a month later the Catholic church announced that it would make marriage annulments quicker and easier (see Claire Blakemore’s blog entry).
Legal developments saw the Supreme Court allow Ms Wyatt to pursue a financial claim against her husband 19 years after they divorced during which time Mr Vince had created a successful green energy business. For more details see Richard Handel’s blog entry. It also allowed Mrs Sharland and Mrs Gohil to make new claims against their respective former husbands after overturning their original final financial orders because of the husbands’ non-disclosure. Claire Blakemore provided commentary on the cases which was widely reported (for example on Sky News).
The approach to spousal maintenance has featured in two reported decisions (Wright and SS v NS) with the focus being on the question of whether maintenance should be paid for life and how to quantify the amount payable. Interestingly, however, at the very end of 2014 the Court of Appeal had handed down judgment in H v H in which it ordered a re-trial in relation to a claim to capitalise a spousal maintenance award because the judge should have carried out a more sophisticated exercise to take into account the wife’s compensation claim. Michael Gouriet commented on the case (see blog entry).
This is only a short summary of developments in family law this year but what it does show is that it remains an area which is diverse and ever changing. It will be interesting to see what 2016 holds.