Family law in 2021 and 2022
Looking back and looking forward – family law in 2021 and 2022
As 2021 draws to a close we look back at some of the big things that have happened in the field of family law this year, and look forward to what will, or might, happen next year.
Looking back – Family law in 2021
This year finally saw the completion of the change from paper to digital divorce.
First launched in 2018, in September the digital system finally became compulsory for all new divorces. Digital divorce offers a number of advantages, including convenience and doing away with the delays inherent in a paper-based system. Along with no-fault divorce (more of which in a moment), we are finally going to have a divorce system fit for the twenty-first century.
But there have been other radical changes to the workings of the family justice system either happening, or being proposed, this year.
In February the President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane announced that all areas of the country were now covered by the new Financial Remedy Courts. These courts mean that financial remedy cases will be dealt with by specialist judges, and should help to ensure a more consistent approach to financial remedy cases across the country. This should make it easier for lawyers to advise on possible outcomes, which in turn may mean that more cases will be sorted out by agreement.
And in the field of children disputes the President set out in October a new approach to parental dispute resolution. His plans aim to resolve parental disputes away from court wherever possible, and where that was not possible to have the courts adopt a less adversarial approach. He also wants more court reviews after final orders, to reduce the number of returning cases. His plans are to be piloted early next year, in courts in North Wales and Dorset.
Lastly, the Government’s landmark Domestic Abuse Act became law in April. The Act included the first statutory definition of domestic abuse, incorporating a range of abuses beyond physical violence, including emotional, coercive or controlling behaviour, and economic abuse. It also included new protections for victims of abuse, established the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner to oversee the provision of domestic abuse services in England and Wales, and brought in protections and support at court for abuse victims.
Looking forward – 2022
Looking forward is of course more difficult. There is one very major change coming to family law in the spring, but otherwise we can largely only speculate as to what might happen
The major change is of course the introduction of a system of no-fault divorce, due to be implemented on the 6th of April 2022.
At long last divorcing couples will no longer have to play the ‘blame game’, having to prove that the breakdown of the marriage was all the fault of the other party (at least unless they had been separated for at least two years). Adultery and unreasonable behaviour will be consigned to history.
Instead, all that will be required to get a divorce is one or both of the parties filing a statement with the court to the effect that their marriage has broken down irretrievably. The court will accept the statement as proof of the breakdown of the marriage.
Also thankfully consigned to history will be defended divorces, as it will no longer be possible for one spouse receiving divorce papers issued by the other to defend the divorce.
A big hope is that, by removing the need to place blame no-fault divorces will be less confrontational, which may make it easier for the parties to reach agreement over arrangements for children and finances.
On the subject of agreeing family disputes, we can expect our new Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab to press for more cases to be settled out of court in 2022 and beyond. In November he told the House of Commons Justice Committee that he would “be in the market for something quite drastic and bold” to incentivise couples to use out of court methods to resolve their disputes, for example mediation and arbitration.
And lastly we can only hope that 2022 will finally see the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is unlikely, however, to see the end of the use of remote court hearings, via the telephone and video conferencing. The President of the Family Division indicated recently that post-pandemic he expects remote working to continue, at least for the ‘less important’ hearings.
Whatever lies in store, let us hope for a better year in 2022.