Coercive behaviour, McKenzie friends and Divorce Day: The last week in family law

Harrow council is piloting a new scheme whereby victims of domestic violence will discuss their abuse face-to-face with the perpetrators. The council believes that the scheme, which is based on a US model, can tackle domestic violence by bringing couples together in a “supportive environment” to discuss its impact. The programme will be run by psychotherapists and counsellors from the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships who will work with the families to find the triggers for the abuse. The scheme has been greeted with scepticism by some women’s groups. Sarah Green, acting director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, has responded to the scheme by saying: “The assumption in such couple counselling approaches tends to be that both parties must be at fault and they simply need to learn better behaviours. Domestic violence is about bullying and control, not misunderstanding. It is a choice, and it is deeply related to power between men and women.”

A new criminal offence of coercive or controlling behaviour came into force on the 29th of December. The offence will mean that victims who experience the type of behaviour that stops short of serious physical violence, but amounts to extreme psychological and emotional abuse, can bring their perpetrators to justice. This type of abuse in an intimate or family relationship can include a pattern of threats, humiliation and intimidation, or behaviour such as stopping a partner socialising, controlling their social media accounts, surveillance through apps and dictating what they wear. The offence will carry a maximum of 5 years’ imprisonment, a fine or both.

A judge has seriously criticised a local authority for allowing a young boy to spend at least two years living with a relative who was a convicted paedophile. The case concerned care proceedings in relation to two siblings, aged 9 and 5. In the course of his judgment His Honour Judge Clifford Bellamy said that staff at Leicester City Council had not undertaken a robust risk assessment of the relative, despite him having served a jail term after admitting sexually abusing a girl. He also said that the council had lacked any sense of urgency in bringing the proceedings. He ordered that the boy should be removed from his family and placed into foster care.

A recent High Court judgment in the Republic of Ireland may significantly affect the practices of international divorce lawyers across Europe. It had previously been understood by lawyers in England and Wales that, where court proceedings are lodged in two different countries, priority would be given to the proceedings that were issued first by the court. However, in MH v MH Mr Justice Henry Abbott has decided that “lodged” for the purposes of the relevant regulation means delivery to the court, and not issue. The judgment, if upheld, could fundamentally change the practice by which lawyers seek to gain priority of jurisdiction on behalf of their clients where there is a risk that the other spouse will issue elsewhere within the EU.

Ray Barry, the chair of the Society of Professional McKenzie Friends, has called for a mandatory code of conduct for all those McKenzie friends who charge fees. Barry told the Law Society Gazette: “Many courts now require McKenzie friends to complete a form prior to a hearing. That form could ask whether the McKenzie friend is fee-charging or not. If yes, the McKenzie friend should be expected to be familiar with and required to comply with the code. For the non-fee charging McKenzie friends the form should simply inform them that they can quietly advise the litigant but also that they may not address the court.”

And finally, the 4th of January, the first day back at work after the Xmas/New Year break, was ‘Divorce Day’, the day upon which lawyers are supposed to receive more new divorce instructions than any other day. However, a poll taken last year by Resolution, the association of family lawyers, found that 82% of respondents did not report a spike in enquiries in the first week of January. Notwithstanding this, Resolution does say that there is a substantial increase in people searching for information online about family law and separation during January. Accordingly, they suggest that the focus “should be shifted from sensationalising ‘Divorce Day’ to ensuring families have access to appropriate and balanced information about managing separation in a way that minimises conflict and the impact on children.”