A day in the life of a family lawyer usually consists of sitting behind a computer swamped in files and papers with the constant ringing of the office phone, buzzing of the blackberry and bleeping of emails going off in the background, a trip to Court being a welcomed escape from the day to day flurry of the office. I was however, fortunate enough to have a rather different working day last week when I was invited by Baroness Deech, along with some of my colleagues, to attend the House of Lords to watch the Committee Stage of amendments to a bill which is set to have a significant impact on financial settlements on divorce.
The Divorce (Financial Provisions) Bill was introduced by Baroness Deech back in February of this year. The bill seeks to bring much needed clarity to divorce law and aims to assist litigants in person and keep litigation costs to a minimum.
It seems that the Bill was largely prompted by the removal of legal aid which has left the family courts with an abundance of litigants in person knocking at their doors trying to understand complicated laws and legal processes, whilst often struggling to cope with the daily emotions of what they are going through at the same time. This often results in delays in cases and costs escalating if the other party is represented by lawyers. Many divorcees see their assets tied up in financial disputes and quickly depleting as costs ever increase. The Bill aims to address this head on.
It was made very clear during my attendance at the House of Lords that the Bill is not intended to have any impact on provision for children and will not make things worse for them. As the Courts current primary consideration, reassurance was given that this will remain so.
Some significant amendments to divorce law are however posed within the Bill. For example, restrictions are placed on what should be considered as ‘matrimonial property’, discarding most of that which has been acquired prior to the marriage, focussing matters on property accumulated during the course of the marriage. Much more emphasis is also placed on pre-nuptial agreements and post-nuptial agreements becoming binding by law, not to be departed from unless there is an exceptional reason.
There is also a significant focus on (spousal) maintenance payments being limited for just enough time to allow the other party to re-establish themselves. Currently, there is often a bitter taste, after a divorce, left in the mouth of the party who is set to pay maintenance to their ex-spouse for a number of years, or even for the rest of their lives. If this change to the law is approved, maintenance payments will generally be time barred, it is suggested, to a maximum of 5 years.
The reaction to the Bill at the House of Lords was positive with points put forward by a number of peers including Baroness Fiona Shackleton of Payne Hicks Beach who was hugely in favour of the reform.
For me, attending the House of Lords in itself was a real treat, but to actually watch the future laws of this country, particularly those relating to Family Law, be debated, shaped and decided upon was very inspiring to say the least.