Divorce, mediation and child maintenance: The last week in family law

The Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) has published statistics for the number of divorces in England and Wales in 2015. The main points include that there were 101,055 divorces of opposite sex couples in 2015, a decrease of 9.1% compared with 2014 and a decline of 34% from a recent peak in 2003; that the male divorce rate for opposite sex couples in 2015 decreased to 8.5 men divorcing per 1,000 married males, 8.6% lower than 2014 and 37% lower than a recent peak in the divorce rate in 2004; and that The female divorce rate for opposite sex couples in 2015 decreased to 8.5 women divorcing per 1,000 married females, 8.6% lower than 2014 and 36% lower than 2004. The ONS noted that the fall in divorces between 2003 and 2009 is consistent with a decline in the number of marriages over the same period, and that the decrease in marriages may be due to the increasing number of couples choosing to cohabit rather than enter into marriage. Following a small rise in the number of divorces in 2009, there was a period of relative stability between 2010 and 2012, but divorces continued to decline between 2013 and 2015.

A draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, intended to protect victims of domestic violence and abuse, was announced by the government in the Queen’s Speech. The draft measures in the Bill will bring forward proposals to establish a Domestic Violence and Abuse Commissioner, who will stand up for victims and survivors, raise public awareness, monitor the response of statutory agencies and local authorities and hold the justice system to account in tackling domestic abuse; to define domestic abuse and create a consolidated new domestic abuse civil prevention and protection order; and to ensure that if abusive behaviour involves a child, then the court can hand down a sentence that reflects the “devastating life-long impact that abuse has on the child”.

A wife has failed to persuade the High Court that a £50 million offshore trust set up by her husband was a sham, and should therefore be included in the assets available for division on divorce. The husband claimed that the trust had been set up in 2007, with the wife’s agreement, to settle the vast bulk of the fortune which had been built up over the course of the marriage, for the benefit of the children. Mrs Justice Roberts found that the trust was genuine, and should therefore be removed from the overall computation of the couple’s accumulated family wealth.

Figures obtained by the charity National Family Mediation (‘NFM’) show that in 2016 over 60 per cent of couples ignored the law, introduced in 2014,  requiring them to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (‘MIAM’)  before they can apply for a court order to settle disputes over parenting, finance and property. NFM Chief Executive, Jane Robey, said: “By making the consideration of mediated settlements compulsory, the government’s aim was help tens of thousands of couples who separate each year save money, time and stress in making post-divorce arrangements. Only four out of ten couples are even attending the initial mediation awareness meeting, let alone following that route through to its conclusion. Ministers need to get to grips with what’s going on and explain these figures. Until they do so, the 2014 legislation, though well-intentioned, will be seen as a failure.”

And finally, the child maintenance system is failing to ensure children receive the appropriate level of support they are entitled to, according to a new report by single parent charity Gingerbread. The report details how, in too many cases, loopholes in the Child Maintenance Service (‘CMS’) mean that non-resident parents are paying a fraction of what they should. The CMS is supposed to calculate and, when necessary, enforce, the payments that children need, but the report argues that recent reforms have instead prioritised administrative convenience over all other concerns. This has led to a situation where desperate parents are repeatedly being let down by a system that seems designed to be as unhelpful and opaque as possible. Gingerbread Director of Policy Dalia Ben-Galim said: “Up and down the country, loopholes in the child maintenance system are allowing parents to deny their children the essential support they need. Some are deliberately hiding their income, while others can perfectly lawfully escape with income or assets ignored; some are cash-in-hand labourers, while others are multi-millionaires.”