Weekly Family Law Update October 30, 2020

Courts crisis, economic abuse and state pensions

President warns of crisis in family courts

The President of the Family Division Sir Andrew McFarlane has warned that the crisis in the family courts due to their high caseload were not going away, and are getting worse.

Speaking at a meeting of the Family Justice Council, whose primary role is to promote an inter-disciplinary approach to family justice and to monitor the system, he said that whilst some family district judges were coping well, others were struggling.

Meanwhile, Mr Justice Williams told the meeting that the South East circuit had seen an increase of 44 per cent in applications to the court on the same period compared to last year. A council member attributed this largely to domestic violence applications, which they said had “gone through the roof”.

Another issue was the continuing shortage of judges. Mr Justice Williams told the meeting that there are 70 vacancies for district judges on the South East circuit alone.

The Family Justice Board is due to meet on the 10th of November when it is expected to authorise the release of a paper on recovery and reform, setting out plans to deal with the family court backlog.

8.7 million people report experiencing economic abuse

Nearly two out of five UK adults (39%) – approximately 20m people – have experienced economically abusive behaviour in a current or former relationship, according to a new report Know Economic Abuse by The Co-operative Bank and the domestic abuse charity Refuge. Despite this, only 16 per cent (8.7 million people) describe, or recognise, their experiences as abuse.

The “Know Economic Abuse” campaign aims to raise awareness of the true scale of economic abuse in the UK. Economic Abuse occurs when someone attempts to control another’s ability to acquire, maintain access to, or use money or other economic resources on a sustained basis. This can include behaviour such as stopping someone from working, taking someone’s money, preventing someone from accessing their own or joint bank accounts, or

putting debts in their name. Nearly a million people (10% of all who have experienced economic abuse) are currently in relationships with people who are abusing them economically.

For 3% of all UK adults (1.6 million people) the economic abuse started during the coronavirus pandemic, and for more than one in three (35%) of those who first experienced economic abuse during the coronavirus pandemic, their partner first became abusive when their pay decreased as a result of the lockdown.

Lisa King, director of communications and external relations at Refuge, commented: “This research confirms that economic abuse isn’t going away, and it needs to be challenged now more than ever. Each and every day, Refuge staff support women who have had their economic independence taken away from them by abusive partners. The impact on their finances continues for many years, often long after the relationship has ended. Economic abuse rarely occurs in isolation, and is frequently experienced alongside physical, sexual, or psychological abuse. Refuge is greatly concerned that such a low percentage of people recognise the signs of economic abuse, meaning there are people who simply don’t realise it is happening to them. This campaign is critical in raising awareness of this form of abuse, helping to spot the signs, and ensuring policymakers sit up and pay attention.”

Women who divorce in later life may be missing out on state pensions

Tens of thousands of women who divorce later in life may be missing out on huge sums in state pension rights because of a complex and little understood system according to new analysis from pensions, investment and insurance consultancy LCP.

Over the period from 1998-2018, more than 100,000 women aged 60 or over divorced according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, there were roughly 4,000 divorces involving women over sixty each year but the numbers have now risen to around 6,000 per year. The vast majority of these women reached state pension age before 6th April 2016 and come under the ‘old’ state pension system which makes significant provision for divorced women. But if they divorce after pension age they only benefit from a pension uplift if they notify the Department for Work and

Pensions (‘DWP’) of their divorce. There is worrying evidence that many may not be aware of this, or may be put off when they try.

Under the old state pension system, a married woman who divorced can substitute her ex-husband’s National Insurance record for her own up the date of their divorce for purposes of working out her basic state pension. This very often results in a significant uplift. For example, a married woman previously on the standard ‘married woman’s rate’ of £80.45 can instead get a basic pension of £134.25 if her husband has a full contribution record. Over the course of a twenty year retirement, this can increase her state pension income by more than £50,000.

For women who divorced (and did not remarry) before state pension age, any ‘substitution’ based on her ex-husband’s NI record should have taken place when she claimed her state pension. But where women divorce post retirement, there is no automatic process for an uplift to take place. Women (and their advisers) need to be aware of these rules and make a claim.

Steve Webb of LCP said:

“Every year thousands of women over state pension age get divorced, but many may not be aware that they can qualify for a state pension boost as a result. Worryingly even some financial advisers, lawyers and DWP call handlers seem to be unaware of the rules. Any woman who reached pension age before 6th April 2016 and has since got divorced should contact the DWP if she is not on a full basic state pension to see if she is entitled to an increase based on her ex-husband’s contributions”.”