As with other sectors in the UK, the legal profession has been significantly impacted the past few months. In this article, we are focusing on what changes are being seen by those working in family law.
Family relations are currently being strained in unprecedented ways and many in the legal profession expect there to be a surge in family law-related disputes. This could include a significant rise in the rates of divorce and cases involving finances and children. Divorce will obviously only affect married couples, but issues of money and children can be a problem for anyone.
Firstly, in terms of divorce, the predicted increase is a notable trend during times of economic uncertainty. Just having more divorces alone might not present problems to those in matrimonial practice. For several years, online systems for dealing with divorce petitions have streamlined this work so that it is not a significant area of a divorce lawyer’s day-to-day job. However, just because the administrative side of divorce has been streamlined, it does not mean all aspects of family law work have shrunk. Key areas where lawyers have seen increased demand include:
- Disputes involving domestic violence or abuse
- Disagreements about existing financial settlements
- Issues with access to children
The increasing incidence of domestic violence is already well documented in the press and some measures have been put in place by the government to help those affected. The other two aspects of family law work – finances and children – are less well reported on, so we will provide a snapshot of what is happening.
Disagreements about existing financial settlements
One obvious effect of lockdown on finances is that, in many cases, there is simply less money available. With so many people unable to work, family lawyers are dealing with more queries about existing financial orders.
A financial order will normally cover things such as what happens to the family home, whether a pension will be shared and how matrimonial property might be transferred. Normally, once these orders are finalised, they are binding even if your income drops. This follows a general rule that a party should get just “one bite of the cherry” rather than be allowed to continually apply for variations. This is the normal rule – but these are not normal times, so more people are considering whether they should apply for variations of existing orders. There is no clear-cut answer as almost everyone has been affected in some way by the lockdown. What is still sound advice is that if a party is considering applying to vary a financial settlement, they should first try to reach an agreement with the other party. If an agreement (say, to temporarily reduce maintenance payments) can be reached, this will be much less expensive than going to court. It is also likely to be quicker as the courts are currently overwhelmed.
Issues with access to children
Another difficult issue, not helped by some confusing initial advice by the government, is how access arrangements should take place during the lockdown. The question of where a child should stay has seen cases of parents using it as an excuse to withhold access. There have also been some unfortunate cases where separated parents have sought to take advantage of the crisis. In one case, a mother tried to have her ex-partner sent to prison for failing to pick up the children, even though it was during the lockdown.
Issues of contact with children can be difficult even at the best of times. The president of the High Court family division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, issued guidance to warring parents that they were expected to act sensibly. He also warned that parents could change the letter of an order but should act in the spirit of any custody arrangements made.
It remains to be seen exactly how the crisis and lockdown will fully impact those providing matrimonial advice. What is certain is that there will be more unique lockdown issues, significant amounts of additional work and little chance that divorce lawyer inboxes will be empty anytime soon.
If you would like to learn more about Family Law, ILSPA provides Family Law courses at foundation and advanced levels. For more information, take a look at our website here.