There was a joke doing the rounds before the general election. It went something like this: “manifesto, noun, from the Latin manifest (to make happen) and oh (it didn’t)”.
So, in the aftermath of the unexpected result, and the small Conservative majority in the House of Commons, what do we know about the effect the result will have on family law?
Family law itself was not discussed in any great way in the election campaign, as it is not really considered to be a vote winner, but some of the key manifesto pledges made by the Conservatives may well impact upon family lawyers and the people we work with.
The most obvious is the promised referendum on EU membership. The Prime Minister will be doing his best to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU ahead of the referendum, which if successful might placate the Eurosceptics. However if the electorate vote to come out of the EU, then the impact on the international aspects of family law could be profound.
Then of course there is the Human Rights Act, which the new Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, is charged with repealing. It seems that with the coalition having dismantled the legal aid system for family law, the statute governing our basic protected rights (such as the right to a fair trial, and the right to respect for private and family life) is to be scrapped too. The current plan is for the Act is to be replaced with a “British Bill of Rights” which is as yet undrafted, but may apparently break the formal link between the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights. The intended repeal of this Act is causing significant concern in many circles, not least among the lawyers who fear the repercussions of being seen to reject what is now a beacon of human rights throughout the world.
A few of the financial pledges will filter through into personal finances and as such are likely to have an impact on settlement negotiations in financial cases.
So with family law rather far from the agenda of the main political parties, it was quite nice to see Resolution, the national organisation for family lawyers (of which we are all members), launching our own manifesto setting out what in our view ought to be done to improve the lot of people struggling with making personal and family arrangements after separation, or the family justice system. Resolution argues for a system which provides support to families and individuals, puts children first, helps separating parents to work together in the child’s best interests, provides fair and lasting outcomes on relationship breakdown, and protects people at risk of harm and those subjected to domestic abuse.
Resolution’s Manifesto sets out six key areas in which changes are needed to improve the family justice system. They are:
- Protect vulnerable people going through separation. The cuts to legal aid, the poor take up of mediation, and the costs of using the Child Maintenance Service are all affecting people. Resolution proposes abolishing the collection fees now charged by the Child Maintenance Service, and introducing a funded initial meeting with a family lawyer for people who would previously have been eligible for legal aid, for the purpose of obtaining some basic good quality legal advice on their family situation.
- Introduce measures to help separating people reach agreements out of court. Resolution want the Government’s focus to move beyond Mediation Information and Assessment Meetings to cover other forms of out-of-court dispute resolution too, and to make funds available to help people use these services.
- Introduce a Parenting Charter to help parents understand their responsibilities when they separate. This is in essence a set of points that both parents agree, to set out the way they will help their children through the separation. Our own Simon Bethel, as Chair of the Resolution Children Committee, was instrumental in creating and drafting this initiative.
- Allow people to divorce without blame. This is a longstanding campaign, but an important one, given how destabilising it can be to require allegations in order to get a divorce through the court if there has not been a lengthy separation.
- Help people understand how their divorce will affect their future finances. Resolution wants to see reform of the system to provide clear guidance on financial arrangements after divorce such as maintenance payments, capital division, matrimonial and non-matrimonial property, and for pre-nups to be binding.
- Provide at least basic legal rights for couples who live together if they separate. This would be a safety-net framework of rights and responsibilities to apply when cohabitees separate, including the right to apply for financial adjustments in some cases.
Given that every political party seems desperate to appeal to the “hard working family” that we so often hear about, perhaps they all might like to join together to address the needs of the hard working family going through separation, as so many sadly do. We suspect it is highly unlikely that money will be found to implement any of Resolution’s requests. But perhaps there is hope – before Parliament was dissolved the Conservatives did launch a review into the law of marriage, so maybe just maybe after the election dust settles we might see some progress towards improving the system for the families who use it. Hope springs eternal.
As always, if you would like to get in touch with us to discuss a family law matter, please call 01223 443333 to make an appointment with Adam, Tricia, Gail, Simon or Sue.