OGR Partner backs the call for no-fault divorce

The question that many family law professionals are bound to ask when Parliament reconvenes this summer is whether MPs will finally consider adopting no-fault divorce.

Organisations such as Resolution, the family law association, have been clamouring for change for years, arguing that the current system puts couples in the invidious position of having to apportion blame and this ultimately makes for more acrimonious separations.

After news broke that Theresa May had called a snap election, Resolution urged politicians from all parties to look again at fundamental reform of the current process.

Rebecca Amboaje, from OGR Stock Denton’s family law department, said: “Proposals and discussion documents aimed at reforming existing divorce law have been in the public arena for nearly 30 years.  As far back as 1988 the Law Commission published a discussion paper on the ground for divorce.

“One of the main aims is to try and enable couples to get divorced with the minimum amount of distress and to encourage them to amicably resolve the practical issues relating to the finances and the children, as well as to try and minimise the harm to the children of the family both during the divorce and into the future.

“I recall studying the new proposed procedure for setting in motion the divorce process when at university back in the early 90s!  Nothing has changed and we still have a system where the only no fault ground for divorce requires a couple to be living apart for two years.

“As a member of Resolution I am in favour of ‘no-fault divorce’ and hope that the law can catch up with the real world in which we live.”

For further information about this update please contact Rebecca Amboaje on (0)20 8349 5483 or by email.

Child Maintenance Service is urged to “up its game”

A group of MPs has called on the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) to do more to enforce the payment of child support.

Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee has said that the organisation needed to improve the system, amid fears that too many families are “slipping through the safety net.”

A report prepared by the cross-party committee has identified a number of priorities which it believes should be pursued to improve the current process.

These include cracking down on self-employed parents who are accused of taking advantage of a legal loophole to avoid paying the correct amount of child support.

The MPs fears that a considerable number of cases were overlooked when the new CMS framework was put in place five years ago and argues it is time to confront issues, both arising from the reforms and those which have been a cause for concern for decades.

Heidi Allen MP, who is among the committee’s members, said: “It is right of course that families sort these issues themselves wherever possible, and the Government only provide a safety net when that doesn’t work.

“But a high proportion of ongoing cases from the CSA have not been resolved, they have simply disappeared.

“The CMS must visibly up its game, to get fair support for parents in the most difficult circumstances, and to send a clear signal that avoiding responsibility for your children is unacceptable.”

Other priorities identified include tackling long-running underpayment by absent parents and cementing the help available to victims of domestic violence.

There are concerns that the current system requires these individuals to have to engage with their abuser over sums of money that haven’t been paid.

Jerry Karlin, chair of the campaign group Families Need Fathers, feared the report didn’t go far enough.

“Our child maintenance system is inadequate and undermines shared parenting,” he said.

“This committee’s report simply tinkers around the edges, but does not address fundamental flaws in the system.”

For further information about this update please contact Peter Martin, on 020 8349 0321 or by email.

Common Law Wives (or Husbands) do not exist: A third of cohabitees unaware of their current rights

A new survey has suggested that one in three of the UK’s cohabitees believe that they have the same legal status as married couples.

The survey conducted by polling company YouGov put a range of questions to 1,000 unmarried couples living in various parts of the UK.

In total, 35 per cent of respondents believed that their relationship afforded them the same rights as those who were married or in a civil partnership.

In recent years there has been a concerted effort to dispel the myth that common law marriage is a recognised arrangement in the courts of England and Wales.

But the new poll suggests that despite cohabiting couples being identified as the fastest growing type of family in the UK, there are still misconceptions about the legal status of the relationship in many households.

Seventy-six per cent of respondents were not familiar with the concept of cohabitation agreements and only two per cent had signed such a document.

If a property is just in one person’s name, the other may have no rights at all.  There was also a general lack of awareness about the law relating to joint tenancy arrangements and how property would be split in the event that the relationship broke down.

Although many couples remained unclear about current laws, an overwhelming majority believed that cohabitees should receive the same legal rights as those who had married.

Unfortunately, despite many in the legal profession pressing for reforms, there is little confidence that suggested legislation will complete its passage through Parliament.

The Cohabitation Rights Bill received a second reading in the House of Lords over two years ago, but there has been little progress since.

For organisations such as Resolution, the family law association to which most specialist family lawyers belong, the sluggish pace of change is far from satisfactory, particularly given that there are now 3.3 million couples cohabiting nationwide.

Cohabiting couples need to define what should happen if they separate or die.  Many don’t and as a result you can have a situation, as we have had recently, where a woman having been what she thought was “a common law wife” for over 20 years and having had three children was not entitled to anything from the family home, nor any maintenance for herself.

If you are cohabiting and don’t have an agreement please contact Peter Martin, on 020 8349 0321 or by email, or Rebecca Amboaje on (0)20 8349 5483 or by email.

Concern that billions in child support payments could be written off

An investigation by the spending watchdog has suggested that at least £3billion in child maintenance payments may never be paid.

A report collated by the National Audit Office (NAO) found that three quarters of the payments which are owed by absent parents have been classed as “uncollectable” by the Department for Work and Pensions.

A further sum, totalling £527million, is considered “potentially collectable”, with the remaining £366million of the current arrears “likely to be collected”.

Notably, a significant share of the overall arrears – equivalent to around £1.4 billion – is owed by just four cent of absent parents.

The NAO inquiry primarily centred on the decision to replace the Child Support Agency (CSA) with the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) five years ago.

Towards the end of its life, the CSA had been dogged by criticism over poor customer service, administrative blunders and a raft of IT problems.

But the efforts to wind-up the outstanding cases, some of which date back over two decades, have themselves been marred by mistakes and accusations of a lack of progress.

By September last year, officials had hoped to wind-up half of the ongoing cases, whereas in fact they had only managed to close around a third.

Meg Hillier MP, who chairs Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, made clear that those owed money needed assurances they wouldn’t lose out.

A DWP spokesman said: “The old system wasn’t good enough, which is why the CSA has been replaced, and today nearly 90 per cent of parents are paying the maintenance they owe.

“We are taking enforcement action in a higher proportion of historic cases than in the past and will be publishing a strategy for addressing arrears in due course.”

Judge fears peers are being misled by media coverage of family courts

A senior Judge has sought to defend decisions by the UK’s family courts amid criticism that the current system is out of step with modern times.

A number of recently reported cases have raised questions about the size of pay-outs being awarded and long-term maintenance arrangements.

But addressing an audience at the University of Bristol this week, Lord Wilson, one of 11 Supreme Court justices, warned that the media had a habit of making exceptional settlements seem “the norm”.

He also argued that courts have a difficult balancing act deciding on appropriate settlements, which are fair to both parties.

“The trouble is that it is usually unrealistic to tell a wife, left on her own perhaps at age 60 after a long marriage, that, following payments for say three years, she must fend for herself,” he said.

His comments come after a Bill – calling for a three-year cap to be implemented for the majority of maintenance payments – passed its Second Reading in the House of Lords.

The proposed reforms, tabled by the crossbench peer Baroness Deech, are now set to go to committee stage. Supporters argue that the current system is no longer fit for purpose.

However, Lord Wilson, who previously spent more than a decade as a member of the family division, struck a cautionary tone.

“In the House of Lords, there is a group of distinguished, well-meaning peers, who have convinced themselves that application of the present law of financial provision is too unpredictable, that access to it through the courts is too expensive, and that ex-wives should be forced to stand on their own two feet, largely irrespective of their age and circumstances,” he said.

“I suspect that they believe too readily what they read in the papers.”

One change that Lord Wilson did indicate he would support is greater weight being given to pre-nuptial agreements. In his speech he cited 2010’s well-known Radmacher case, which was one of the first in the UK to attach any real significance to the arrangements.

For further information about this update please contact Peter Martin, on 020 8349 0321 or by email.

Landlord fined for bombarding tenant with text messages

A landlord who repeatedly harassed his tenant and flouted fire safety rules has been fined more than £2,400.

The Court heard how Nilendu Das, a 49- year-old from Sheffield, would bombard the tenant with text messages and unsolicited visits.

On one occasion he sent 10 text messages in just three minutes to the tenant.

He also disturbed the tenant at night and while he was working, reportedly leaving the tenant “fearful that he would get the sack”.

Mr Das also pleaded guilty to four separate health and safety breaches relating to another residence, where damaged fire doors and faulty fire alarm systems were found.

The Magistrates’ Court ordered the landlord to pay £2,412 in fines and compensation, as well as undertake 180 hours of unpaid community work.

Jayne Dunn, Sheffield Council’s housing chief, said: “I am determined to carry on clamping down on the very small minority of bad landlords in Sheffield that treat their tenants badly and tarnish the private rented sector.”

Wife refused divorce takes case to the Appeal Court –

In every marriage are both parties unreasonable?

A pensioner who was previously refused permission to divorce her husband has taken her case to the Court of Appeal.

In what has been described as an “extraordinarily unusual” legal battle, Tini Owens claims she has been “locked” in a loveless marriage.

A family court Judge, Robin Tolson, had dismissed Mrs Owens’ divorce petition last year.  In the original hearing, the 66-year-old said that her husband, Hugh Owens, had continued to berate her about a previous affair and that his conduct amounted to unreasonable behaviour.

She told the court that she felt isolated and alone, citing instances where her husband sat silently as they ate and criticised her in front of the couple’s housekeeper.

Mr Owens, who has made millions after starting a mushroom growing business, had insisted he had forgiven his wife for her infidelity five years ago and that he wanted them to remain married.

Judge Tolson concluded that Mrs Owens “exaggerated the context and seriousness” of incidents and suggested her husband’s behaviour was to be expected in a marriage.

Choosing to dismiss a petition is very unusual these days and, if the original ruling is upheld, Mrs Owens will have to wait five years from the time they separated to be able to divorce without her husband’s consent.   Her legal team have argued this is particularly unfair given her age.   They have also taken issue with the suggestion that the couple’s wealth means they can afford to live in separate houses.

The court was informed that the Owens, who married almost 40 years ago, have been living apart since 2015.

Three Judges, including the president of the family division, Sir James Munby, heard evidence at London’s Royal Courts of Justice yesterday and are expected to announce their decision at a later date.

Peter Martin, head of the Family department at OGR Stock Denton, commented: “I have long held the view that in every marriage both parties behave unreasonably from time to time.

“Whilst the Judge is clearly right that this is just a part of marriage, to hold a wife in a loveless marriage simply because the husband does not accept the marriage has broken down irretrievably is nonsense.

“When I was student (okay, it was 45 years ago!) we were taught that the law was that ‘a drunken wife can be expected to live with a drunken husband and a violent wife can be expected to live with a violent husband’ and because both parties behaved that way they clearly couldn’t consider the other person’s behaviour unreasonable.  Are we going back to those bad old days?  Let’s hope the Court of Appeal says not.”

For further information about this update please contact Peter Martin, on 020 8349 0321 or by email.