A Vision for Family Justice in England and Wales – we are at a crucial turning point
29 November 2023 | Applicable law: England and Wales | 3 minute read
This week is Resolution's Annual Awareness Week and this year Resolution is using the week to call for a wider vision for family justice. It's time to reconfigure our family justice system to suit all families facing relationship breakdown and to provide families with broader support, not just legal advice and advocacy.
Resolution's paper sets out a vision for change, shining the spotlight on five areas:
- reforming the law for cohabitants
- helping families find solutions
- protecting the vulnerable (with a focus on victims of domestic violence, access to justice, and financial and other support for children)
- ensuring that the family courts meet the needs of children on relationship breakdown
- improving family law so it is 'fit for purpose'
Awareness - legal rights on separation and access to justice
We need to become more rights-aware as a nation and we need vision to get there. A British Attitudes Survey this year revealed that 46% of the public believe
s that common law marriage exists. Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in the UK - about one in five couples live together without marrying or entering a civil partnership. However, unlike married couples who divorce, they have no automatic rights on relationship breakdown – not to the family home, nor to pension sharing, capital or spousal maintenance.
Similarly, many families are not accessing legal advice and information when dividing the assets and sorting out maintenance payments and remain unaware that financial claims on divorce remain open until approved by a court. Pioneering research by the University of Bristol and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, published this month (the Fair Shares research), shows that families are 'hampered by a lack of financial and legal knowledge, bypassing the system to achieve fairness, and leaving women worse off'.
And there is confusion about the options available to couples on divorce and separation and how to use them. As highlighted at this month's launch of the Online Procedure Rule Committee, there is an urgent need for a user-centred justice system - clients just want to know where to start. They deserve support and clarity about the therapeutic, financial, accountancy, parental and legal support available and how to access it. Added to that, children and vulnerable people in the court system need to be heard, supported and protected - our family courts are too stretched and many of our laws are outdated.
Vision - interconnectivity and 'togetherness' in providing family law advice and support
So what is being done and is reform on the cards?
In October, as part of her speech 'Making the Law Work for Women', the Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry MP, announced the Labour Party's intention to review cohabitation law and commit to introducing reform. Few disagree that this reform is needed and so this is encouraging, especially against the backdrop of the work being done by the Law Commission which is currently assessing how to reform law governing finances on divorce – its report expected in September 2024.
In terms of helping families find solutions, the legal profession and colleagues in the family law arena are already 'walking the talk' and adapting to meet those user-centred needs: the provision of models which incorporate different aspects and disciplines which separating couples and their children need. These range from legal advice to bespoke therapeutic support, mediation, expert pensions and accountancy advice, neutral evaluation options, arbitration - sometimes all in one place. Such new models, including Resolution Together and Uncouple, are up and running and many firms are now introducing different models to help couples find the right solution for them. The work done by numerous Resolution Committees, the Family Rule Procedure Committee and the Family Solutions Group is helping to bring about that vision for wider family justice on the ground.
Several initiatives are focusing on children and the support they receive in family breakdown, for those children within the family justice system and outside it; A Child's Right to Matter launched by the Family Solutions Group being just one.
The key is to promote awareness of that vision in the profession, in Government and amongst the public and to help more separating couples become aware of their legal rights and which options and support would suit them (and their families) best. There are high hopes for visionary reform and increased awareness in 2024.