07 April 2020 - Article
The build-up to an election is a good time to think about what you want from your ideal government. Putting personal political views to one side, as a family lawyer I have a wish list for any future government:
Divorce and Domestic Abuse
It was so disappointing to read of the various bills that had been making progress through Parliament but have now fallen away due to the election. Family lawyers will be particularly looking to see that the next government ensure that divorce reform and the Domestic Abuse Bill are put straight back on the agenda.
Our current divorce law is entirely out of step with modern thinking. Unless you are willing (or indeed financially able) to wait for 2 years, under current law you must effectively blame one party for the breakdown of your marriage; either by saying that they have committed adultery, or by detailing the behaviour which you find it intolerable to live with. This law is in desperate need of overhaul, and the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill looked set to make that happen, but sadly all the progress it made has come to nothing.
The Domestic Abuse Bill was set to transform the approach of the justice system, and wider statutory agencies, to domestic abuse: helping to prevent offending, protect victims and ensure they have the support they need. This Bill if made law would help to make an enormous difference to those suffering domestic abuse and I very much hope it will be a focus of the next government.
Rights for cohabitees
Our current law does not properly protect cohabiting couples (the fastest growing family type) who are neither married nor in a civil partnership. This is another area where our laws no longer reflect our societal attitudes and choices.
In 2014 the Law Commission published its report setting out its aim to introduce a draft bill to make qualifying nuptial agreements legally binding. This would provide much needed clarity on the extent to which people can rely on their pre-nuptial agreements and the safeguards that should be put in place. Although pre-nuptial agreements have become increasingly common place, and the courts are, through judgments, providing helpful guidance as to the extent to which they will be upheld, this much needed statutory reform continues to be overlook by government.
As this is a wish list, I can’t not include a desire for the return of legal aid for separating families, not just those where there is domestic abuse. The impact of this change in the law has been enormous both in terms of those individuals who are no longer able to get the advice that they need and also for the courts. The family court system is inevitably stretched by the sheer volume of people looking for assistance. Those who are not represented require more time and attention from judges, and it is far harder for them to settle cases without advice as to entitlement. It raises serious questions about access to justice.
Finally, as with every area of life in the UK, Brexit has huge implications for family law. The idea of losing the current working relationship with courts in all other Member States is genuinely concerning. If Brexit must happen, then my hope for the next government is that there is carefully planned exit strategy with alternative measures in place to ensure those with European connections are protected.
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Read our article on gender identity and family law.