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Now and Then: The developments in Family Law in 2019 and what to expect in 2020

2019 was a landmark year in Family Law for many reasons but perhaps none bigger than the introduction of the No-Fault Divorce.

Back in April 2019, the Justice Secretary announced a change to the long-standing divorce legislation with a view to parties reducing conflict in the divorce process to better assist them in reaching financial agreements and in keeping things as amicable as possible if there are children involved.

Currently, parties are required to set out that their relationship has broken down irretrievably and either to apportion “blame” to the other by citing their unreasonable behaviour or to wait to divorce until they have been separated for 2 or 5 years, even if the relationship has simply broken down and the parties are in agreement about this.

Proposals for change include the removal of such blame, creating a joint application for parties, removing the ability to contest a divorce and introducing a minimum timeframe.

Such changes to legislation will need to be introduced to Parliament as soon as possible.

Another reform in 2019 was the introduction in March of a second reading of the Cohabitation Rights Bill. Such reforms would not grant cohabiting couples who are separating the same rights as divorcing couples. However, what it would do is give the Courts the ability to adjust the financial position of couples in this position where necessary to spread the financial “consequences, benefits and costs” fairly between the parties.

As it stands, save for any legal documents being put in place to protect parties, cohabiting couples currently have almost no legal protection automatically. Without such documentation, the parties are required to evidence joint intention or contributions directly or indirectly.

A very welcome update is the definition of the couples in question which will now extend to cohabitants whether same sex or opposite sex who either have a child together or who have lived together for at least 3 years. There is also a suggested opt-out provision but there would also be power in the Court to vary or revoke any opt-outs deemed to be unfair.

A further reform in 2019 was the introduction of the Domestic Abuse Bill which was undergoing its second reading in Parliament in October. This Bill will define domestic abuse for the first time which shall be extended to include financial abuse as well as introducing some well needed new provisions.

One very important introduction is a ban on alleged abusers being able to directly cross-examine their victims in the Family Court which presides over cases concerning divorce and child contact.

In respect of what is coming up in 2020, the short answer is much of the same. With the prorogation of Parliament, the general election and the uncertain over what will happen with Brexit, such reforms to legislation have very much taken a back seat.

Campaigners who have worked hard to get these issues before Parliament, in some cases for many years, are calling for these issues to be made a priority at the earliest opportunity.

All of these reforms are widely welcomed and long overdue to bring long-standing legislation up to date and compatible with today’s society, as well as providing much needed protection for victims of abuse.

Rather than any new issues being introduced in 2020 the focus is on getting this much needed legislation through parliament and into the Courts as soon as possible.

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