Some important aspects of family law in England and Wales may be out of date and in urgent need of overhaul according to a Manifesto for Family Law launched by Resolution, an organisation which represents 6500 lawyers and other professionals dealing with divorces and separation.
According to The Guardian newspaper, Jo Edwards, a solicitor and the chair of Resolution, said on launching the manifesto that the laws governing the family justice system are, “woefully outdated, inadequate and unfair to many people”.
There are currently around 118,000 divorces each year in England and Wales, and Resolution believes that the current laws make it a more difficult and costly process than it needs to be, saying that the existing divorce law often means that one spouse has to blame the other for the breakdown of the marriage. They feel that this often causes conflict, makes it more difficult to reach an amicable settlement and causes stress and upset to the divorcing couple and their children.
The manifesto proposes that fault-free divorces be introduced. This is by no means a new concept though, as provisions for the introduction of fault-free divorces were contained in the Family Law Act 1996 but never brought into effect.
Resolution also feels that more emphasis should be placed on helping separating couples reach agreement about arrangements for their children and finances without having to go to court. Its manifesto calls for an overhaul of the current mediation system, as well as making legal aid available to enable separating couples to access other forms of dispute resolution.
A lack of knowledge amongst separating couples about the effect that divorce will have on their finances is also an area of concern for Resolution. It states that changes to the legal aid system have resulted in an increase in the number of people representing themselves at court in cases involving family disputes. Divorce law relating to finances is, says Resolution, complex and difficult to understand, and outcomes can be difficult to predict, even for professionals.
Resolution also sets out its concern that legal aid reform has reduced the number of people having access to legal support during divorce and separation. It points out that publicly funded mediation numbers dropped by 45% from 2011-12 to 2013-14, identifying issues surrounding the costs involved for parents using the Child Maintenance Service.
It proposes that these issues be dealt with by the introduction of a ‘family law credit’, entitling anyone who qualifies for legal aid for family mediation purposes, to have a free initial meeting with a solicitor, and by making changes to the fees levied by the Child Maintenance Service, so that the children of vulnerable parents don’t lose out because of the way the system works. (It’s worth noting that Brookman’s initial meeting is offered free of charge already)
According to Resolution, many separating parents are unsure of their rights and responsibilities towards their children. To deal with this, it proposes that a Parenting Charter be drawn up. This Charter would set out: “what children should be able to expect from their parents if they are separate, and what separating parents need to do in the interests of their children”.
Resolution adds that nearly six million adults in England and Wales cohabit, yet have little or no legal protection if they separate, in contrast to the approach taken by other legal systems, including that of Scotland.
To redress this situation, Resolution proposes that a framework of rights and responsibilities for cohabitees should be created, thereby introducing some degree of legal protection when unmarried couples split up or one of them dies.