Child maintenance, the Court of Protection and civil partnerships: The last week in family law

Forty per cent of victims of domestic violence still do not have the required forms of evidence to access legal aid, a survey by the domestic violence charity Rights of Women has found. Emma Scott, Director of Rights of Women, has said: “Our research has consistently shown that nearly half of women affected by domestic violence do not have the required forms of evidence to apply for family law legal aid and that more than half of those women tell us that they take no legal action as a result. This leaves them at risk of further violence and even death.”

The President of the Family Division Sir James Munby, along with the Master of the Rolls Lord Dyson and the Senior President of Tribunals Sir Ernest Ryder appeared before the House of Commons Justice Committee to discuss the subject of courts’ and tribunals’ fees and charges. They condemned government plans to raise court fees, and Sir James also spoke of progress towards a proposed new system for ‘paperless’ online divorce. He said that he was disappointed with the progress that has been made, saying that the ability to deliver such a system was a question upon which the jury was still out, and that he still had no clear answer to such basic questions as what would be the overall timeline for implementing the system if it can be delivered.

The Department for Work and Pensions has published statistics for the 2012 statutory child maintenance scheme, the scheme now used by all new applicants for child maintenance via the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’). The statistics show that the number of cases managed by the CMS continues to increase following the introduction of application and collection charging in 2014. The caseload stood at 187,200 as at the end of November 2015, an increase of 20% when compared to August 2015. In the quarter to November 2015, 87% of payers were contributing towards their current liability, with 88% of cash due, paid. The number of Children Benefiting from maintenance continues to increase and, in the quarter to November 2015, stood at 185,300.

A High Court judge has granted permission for a woman to appeal her divorce settlement, after a lack of representation due to legal aid cuts led a district judge to conclude incorrectly that she was a liar and a bigamist. In Azizi v Aghaty, Mr Justice Holman said a judgment made by a deputy district judge, leaving the wife with just a 25% stake in a flat in Tehran, was unreliable and ‘objectively unfair’. Making it clear that he meant no criticism of the judge he said: “She was faced, as so often occurs since the almost wholesale abolition of Legal Aid, with two unrepresented litigants in person. The first language of neither of them is English, and, as will emerge, the wife in particular has difficulties with that language. In those difficult circumstances the deputy district judge clearly did her best, but after a careful review of the verbatim transcript of the whole proceedings I have had regretfully to conclude that her decision on certain essential aspects of the case is not reliable and that, in certain respects, the hearing was objectively unfair to the wife.”

A pilot scheme has begun which will see the public and media gain access to Court of Protection hearings across England and Wales for the first time. The scheme applies to new proceedings issued from the 29th of January. Under the scheme the default position will effectively change to one where hearings are held in public with reporting restrictions to protect identities. This means that when an order has been made under the pilot, both the media and the public will be able to attend, unless a further order has been made which excludes them.

And finally, a heterosexual couple have lost their court challenge against the law preventing them from entering into a civil partnership. The Civil Partnership Act specifically states that two people are not eligible to register as civil partners if they are not of the same sex. Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan challenged the law on the grounds that it discriminates against heterosexual couples. However, Mrs Justice Andrews did not agree and dismissed their claim. The couple have indicated that they intend to appeal. Ms Steinfeld told the BBC: “We are very disappointed in the judge’s ruling today, which we think undermines equality in the United Kingdom.”