Online divorce, no-fault divorce, and more

family law

A week in family law

The Justice Minister Dominic Raab has written to the Law Commission to say that it’s not the right time for a full review of marriage law, but the government hasn’t ruled out further work in the future. In December 2015 a scoping report from the Commission identified issues with the way marriages were conducted in England and Wales, highlighting potential problems with how marriages are registered, what paperwork a couple must complete before their wedding takes place, who can conduct marriages, and where they can take place.

Law Commissioner Professor Nick Hopkins responded to the letter by saying:

“We understand parliamentary time is precious at the moment but don’t believe that the need for reform will go away. We hope we can continue our work in this area in the future, and welcome the Minister’s promise to keep the situation under review.”

Meanwhile, hopefully the government will use the time saved to reform our divorce law, more of which in a moment.

There have been two pieces of news this week regarding the forthcoming online divorce system. Firstly, HMCTS Chief Executive Susan Acland-Hood has revealed in a blog post that the service is looking to move forward with plans to allow online applications for a financial remedy. She said that the next 18 months will see improvements to online divorce that move it away from ‘print and post’, expand it from a limited ‘private beta’ to a ‘public beta’ available to everyone, and add the next component, “which allows for financial remedy to be dealt with through the same system, just as easily.” Secondly, the Ministry of Justice has announced that an online divorce pilot is now being tested at three sites in the UK, and is due to be extended to other centres in the coming months, with the ultimate plan to roll it out nationally. The scheme enables couples to apply for an uncontested divorce digitally via ‘smart’ forms, which tailor questions based on the circumstances of the marriage breakdown. Let us hope that the reality is as marvellous as all of this sounds…

New powers to stop parents avoiding paying child maintenance have been announced by the Department for Work and Pensions. Currently, if a parent owes child maintenance, deductions to recover that debt can currently only be made from a bank or building society account held solely by them. This has meant that a small minority of parents are cheating their way out of supporting their children by putting their money into a joint account with a partner. New laws will be brought in to allow deductions to be made from joint accounts in order to recover child maintenance arrears. Sounds good, but I fear that the new powers may do no more than open up a can of worms.

Our current divorce law is incentivising people to exaggerate claims of ‘behaviour’ or adultery to get a quicker divorce, new research published by the Nuffield Foundation has found. The researchers say that these claims cannot be investigated by the court or easily rebutted by the responding party, leading to unnecessary conflict and a system that is inherently unfair. The researchers recommend removing fault entirely from the divorce law and replacing it with a notification system where divorce would be available if one or both parties register that the marriage has broken down irretrievably and that intention is confirmed by one or both parties after a minimum period of six months. The research just confirms what many of us have been saying for years. Still, hopefully it will at last make it impossible for our legislators to ignore this issue any longer.

Meanwhile, a survey by Scottish Widows has found that divorced women are missing out on £5bn in pension payments every year. Fewer than one in ten married people surveyed said they would seek a fair share in pensions, even though the average retirement fund for a married couple is reportedly as much as £132,000. Scottish Widows says that almost half of women (48 per cent) have no idea what happens to pensions when a couple gets divorced, which may explain why so few couples consider them as part of a settlement. A fifth (22 per cent) presume each partner keeps their own pension and 15 per cent believe they are split 50-50, no matter what the circumstances. My advice is: get advice.

And finally, it appears that artificial intelligence is soon to replace the legal profession. Not only did an AI program recently teach a thing or two to human lawyers about PPI claims, but the Law Society has predicted this week that automation will replace 67,000 legal services jobs within a generation. As a lawyer who is no longer practising, I for one welcome our new robot lawyer overlords…

Have a good weekend.

Image by Hamza Butt via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence.

John Bolch

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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