By the ‘Fair Shares’ Project Team: Emma Hitchings, Caroline Bryson, Gillian Douglas, Susan Purdon and Donna Crowe-Urbaniak
Fair Shares – Sorting out money and property on divorce is a new study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, which will explore the arrangements couples reach relating to their finances and property when they divorce. Using a large-scale survey and in-depth interviews, it will examine what arrangements they make, how they arrive at them and how well they think they have met their expectations. The aim is to provide hard data for law reformers seeking to update the law, and insights for judges, practitioners and divorcing couples themselves on ‘what works’ best. (more…)
by Marilyn Howard, Honorary Research Associate with the University of Bristol Law School
This week the House of Commons considers amendments from the House of Lords to the Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-2021. One amendment which was debated in the Lords, but not accepted, would have required the new Domestic Abuse Commissioner to publish a report which investigates the impact of the Universal Credit single household payment on domestic abuse survivors, and to propose alternatives. (more…)
In more ‘normal times’, the start of each new year marks the arrival of media coverage of the ‘divorce season’. Newspapers publish feature articles reporting that the stresses of Christmas prompt many couples to decide that enough is enough, and to make a new year’s resolution to get out of their marriage. Family solicitors duly issue press releases to advertise their services to assist them, both with getting the divorce itself and with sorting out the financial, property and child arrangements that will need to be made to deal with life going forward. In reality, this New Year ‘spike’ in divorce applications may not be much more than an urban myth. The divorce statistics show that in the years from 2011 up to and including 2019, there have only been three years when the first quarter of the year – January to March – has recorded the highest number of petitions (applications for a divorce) filed across the year. Rather, there tends to be a consistent flow of petitions across the year.
With diverse formally formations increasing, it is arguable that the birth registration system is not fit for purpose because it is tethered to ‘traditional’ understandings of family life and cannot adequately account for ‘modern’ families. This post considers mismatches between law and identity within birth registration for trans parents.
You would be forgiven for thinking that the term “male mother” is an oxymoron, but this is the conclusion the Court of Appeal reached in R (McConnell) v The Registrar General for England and Wales  EWCA Civ 559 regarding a trans man, Freddy McConnell, who gave birth and wanted to be registered as his child’s father (or parent) on the birth certificate. (more…)
Mills v Mills  UKSC 38 is an example of a rare ‘everyday’ financial remedies case on divorce that has been decided at the highest appellate level – the Supreme Court. It was handed down in the middle of July. Costs, time, energy and a host of other factors involved in taking a case to an adjudicated final hearing, mean that over 90% of financial remedies cases settle before reaching this stage (Family Court Statistics Quarterly, January – March 2018) and it is only a tiny minority that end up being appealed, let alone appealed to the highest level. That one of those rare appellate cases is an ‘everyday’ case where the assets and finances involved are pretty ordinary, is particularly note-worthy. The usual wealthy entrepreneurs or celebrities are absent, and instead, the Mills case involves a couple, who on divorce in 2002, agreed a capital settlement of £230,000 to the wife, £23,000 to the husband, and ongoing monthly spousal periodical payments of £1,100 a month from the husband to the wife. This is not a case about millionaires or billionaires, but an ‘everyday’ couple, where the financial needs of the parties dominate.
Guidance provided from the higher courts has, to date, focused on the larger-money case and the associated issues relevant to those wealthy individuals who can afford to litigate on issues such as the nature of their ‘special contribution’ and whether this should result in an unequal division of the family assets due to one spouse’s exceptional skill or acumen in the business or entrepreneurial world. It was therefore to be hoped that the Supreme Court would seize this rare opportunity and provide some much-needed broader guidance for family lawyers on ‘needs-based’ cases – the usual ‘run-of-the mill’ case, which although does not usually make headlines, takes up the vast majority of Family Court financial remedy business up and down the country. (more…)
By Dr Leanne Smith, Senior Lecturer in Law (School of Law and Politics, Cardiff University) and Dr Emma Hitchings, Senior Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School).*
In mid June 2017, the report of our Bar Council commissioned research on fee-charging McKenzie Friends in private family law cases was published (the full report can be accessed here and an executive summary here).
One of the report’s key messages is that we found little evidence of McKenzie Friends seeking to exercise rights of audience on a regular basis and plenty of evidence that the bulk of the work done by McKenzie Friends is done outside of court. The work McKenzie Friends do in court, we said, is ‘the tip of the iceberg’. This was the finding that the Pink Tape blog outlining Lucy Reed’s perspective on the research focused on, indicating that it was not at all surprising. We hope we can be forgiven here for indulging in a few words in defence of the utility of the research.
We readily accept that many in the legal professions have been aware for some time that paid McKenzie Friends operate predominantly outside court, but research has an important role to play in interrogating anecdotal evidence and providing more systematically derived evidence in order to validate or debunk it. This is no less true because perceived experience is validated by a set of results. In this instance, our hope is that the findings of the research will function as a turning point for discussion on the subject of fee-charging McKenzie Friends in a way that the observations of some professionals who encounter them has not. In addition there are, of course, some more granular observations that we consider important buried in our report, though we will resist spoilers for those who haven’t yet finished reading it…
By Prof Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).
One key piece of knowledge all law students are expected to grasp early on in their legal career is the difference between what a judge says – dicta or obiter dicta and what a case means – the ratio or ratio decidendi. Even when they know the difference, students and practising barristers often prefer to reach for a quotation from a case. It can be comforting to use a well-rounded phrase from Smith J or Jones LJ and it may at first glance suggest wisdom when it really is just about memory. However, reliance on dicta is a really bad habit, does not make better lawyers and can seriously undermine what the law means.
In the hands of some judges dicta are powerful ways of communicating ideas – judicial soundbites – which make the case and the judge memorable. Lord Denning was a past master at this, making it easy to remember the facts of cases, but not always the law. Indeed Lord Denning’s skill with language enabled him to make or even make up law. Of course he was largely dealing with Common Law, developing contract and tort law rather than interpreting statute. (more…)
In the wake of legal aid cuts, individuals in the midst of a family law dispute who cannot pay for legal representation are faced with a stark choice: settling the dispute outside of court or representing themselves as a litigant in person. However, a new market has emerged to plug this post legal aid funding gap: the fee-charging McKenzie Friend. A non-lawyer assistant who charges a fee for services provided to litigants in person.
By Prof Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).
In all the commentary on the tragic death of Ellie Butler, there has been very little discussion of the decision made to return Ellie to her parents. This was a truly exceptional decision. Ellie had been living with her grand-parents, her special guardians, for 5 years. She had not lived with her mother since she was admitted to hospital at the age of 6 weeks and never lived with her parents together. Indeed her parents only started living together shortly before she was returned to them. Ellie had had very little contact with her parents; contact had been limited by the court and the mother and father did not attend many of their contact sessions. The people who parented Ellie were her grand-parents; she and her parents hardly knew each other.
Special guardianshiporders (SGOs) were introduced in 2002 to provide a framework for permanent care where adoption was not appropriate where children were being cared for within their wider family, as Ellie was, also for older children who have enduring relationships with parents who cannot care for them. Approximately 7,000 SGOs are made each year, around 5,000 in child protection proceedings and 2,000 for children who are not in state care. (more…)
By Prof Judith Masson, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).*
The Family Court system costs a lot to run. Until 2008 much of the cost of running the courts came from taxes, but increasingly litigants are expected to foot the bill. So the court system cannot be thought of as simply part of securing a Just Society, like the Police, the Armed Services and Parliament, all of which are paid for from taxes. Rather courts exist as a service for those who want to litigate.
Court fees have been raised repeatedly, and for some types of proceedings, including divorce, actually exceed what it costs to provide the service. The court fee for divorce is £550. Applicants for divorce subsidize other cases where the full economic cost cannot be charged. The courts have a monopoly over divorce, which is secured by the criminal law! Remarrying whilst still married is a crime – bigamy.