Weekly Family Law Update May 5, 2021

Domestic Abuse Act and the effect of the pandemic on a settlement

Domestic Abuse Bill receives Royal Assent

The government’s Domestic Abuse Bill, which will provide new protections for victims of abuse, has received the Royal Assent and is therefore now an Act of Parliament.

For the first time in history there will be a wide-ranging legal definition of domestic abuse which incorporates a range of abuses beyond physical violence, including emotional, coercive or controlling behaviour, and economic abuse.  

The measures include important new protections and support for victims ensuring that abusers will no longer be allowed to directly cross-examine their victims in the family and civil courts, and giving victims better access to special measures in the courtroom to help prevent intimidation, such as protective screens and giving evidence via video link.

Police will also be given new powers including Domestic Abuse Protection Notices, providing victims with immediate protection from abusers. Meanwhile, courts will be able to hand out new Domestic Abuse Protection Orders to help prevent offending by forcing perpetrators to take steps to change their behaviour, including seeking mental health support or drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

The Act also establishes the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner, who will oversee and monitor the provision of domestic abuse services in England and Wales. The first Commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, has already been appointed.

Other measures in the Act include extending the offence of controlling or coercive behaviour to cover post-separation abuse; explicitly recognising children as victims if they see, hear or experience the effects of  abuse; and placing a duty on local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation.

Speaking on the new law Home Secretary Priti Patel said: 

“Domestic abuse and violence against women and girls are utterly shameful. As Home Secretary, I am determined to work tirelessly to keep vulnerable people safe and bring crime down.

“The Domestic Abuse Act is long overdue. This landmark act will transform the support we offer across society. This includes the support Government provides to victims to ensure they have the protection they rightly need, so that perpetrators of these abhorrent crimes are brought to justice.”

And Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland commented:

“This landmark piece of legislation steps up the response to domestic abuse at every level – giving victims more support than ever before while ensuring perpetrators feel the full force of the law.

“Thanks to the many survivors, charities, parliamentarians and colleagues from across government who have worked tirelessly to make this possible, more vulnerable people and families will be protected from the scourge of domestic abuse.”

Husband’s claim that pandemic nullifies settlement fails

A husband has failed to have an agreed financial settlement set aside because of the effect of the pandemic on his business, the main asset in the marriage.

On the 12th of March 2020 the husband agreed to a settlement whereby he was to pay the wife a series of lump sums totalling £1 million.

At that time his company, which traded in the distribution of commercial photocopiers and printers, was valued at some £3.5 million. However, the pandemic hit the business of the company, as a result of which the value of the company fell to about £1.2 million.

The husband sought to have the settlement set aside, claiming that the drop in the value of the company meant that he was unable to pay the lump sums, and invalidated the basis upon which the settlement was agreed.

However, the court found that at the date of the settlement the effect of the pandemic should have been foreseen by the husband, and in any event the effect upon the company was not fundamental enough to warrant having the settlement set aside, particularly as the company was expected to return to profitability in 2022.

Accordingly, the husband’s application to set aside the settlement was dismissed.