A fee increase, Madonna and legal aid: The last week in family law

The court fee for issuing divorce proceedings has been increased, from £410 to £550. The increase took effect on Monday, the 21st of March. The increase has been heavily criticised, particularly as the actual cost of the administrative process has been shown to be £270, meaning that at the new rate the Ministry of Justice is making a profit of more than 100% – in effect, levying a ‘divorce tax’. Commenting upon the increase, Jo Edwards, Chair of Resolution, the association of family lawyers, said that it “will lead to confusion, hardship, and avoidable additional pain for separating couples”, and that it could even lead to women being trapped in unhappy or violent marriages.

The No Fault Divorce Bill, the Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Richard Bacon MP, will be presented again in the next session of Parliament, which will commence on the 18th of May. The Bill was expected to have its second reading debate on the 11th of March, but the motion was not moved and there are no available days fixed for the second reading of Private Members’ Bills before the end of the current parliamentary session. The Bill makes provision for the dissolution of a marriage or civil partnership when each party has separately made a declaration that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down, without a requirement by either party to satisfy the court of any other facts.

The pop star Madonna has been granted permission to withdraw her application to the court in London for the summary return of her 15-year-old son, Rocco, to the United States. The singer is in dispute with her ex-husband Guy Ritchie over where the teenager should live. Hearings have been held in both New York and London, but Madonna recently asked London’s High Court to bring the English proceedings to a close. Granting this application Mr Justice MacDonald made a plea to the parents “to seek, and to find an amicable resolution to the dispute between them.” The case will now return to New York, where a judge ruled last December that Rocco should be returned to his mother’s custody.

A Saudi billionaire has lost his appeal against an order dismissing his application to strike out his wife’s claim for financial relief, on the basis that he was entitled to diplomatic immunity. Christina Estrada is seeking a share of Sheikh Walid Juffali’s estimated £4 billion fortune, after 13 years of marriage and the birth of a daughter. Juffali said that he had already provided them with a generous settlement, and that his diplomatic status as St Lucia’s representative on the International Maritime Organisation meant that he had “general immunity” from being sued in the British courts. However, last month Mr Justice Hayden refused to strike out the claim, describing the diplomatic immunity defence as “spurious”. Juffali appealed against that decision, and his appeal was supported by the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who said that the decision meant that British diplomats could be hauled before the courts of any country in which they are serving and their position “scrutinised, and their status unjustifiably curtailed”. However, the Court of Appeal has held that Mr Justice Hayden was entitled to conclude on the facts that Juffali was not entitled to immunity because he is permanently resident in the UK and the claim does not relate to any official acts performed by him in the exercise of his functions. Accordingly, the appeal was dismissed.

And finally, Resolution has this week written to the Legal Aid Agency calling for it to delay the introduction next month of compulsory use of the online Client and Cost Management System (‘CCMS’), which permits access to civil legal aid. The letter from Resolution claims that the online portal keeps breaking down. Elspeth Thomson, who chairs Resolution’s legal aid committee, said: “We have had an overwhelming response from legal aid lawyers on the ground, who are working with some of the most vulnerable members of society to help them get access to justice. They are telling us that CCMS is not working as it should or, on some days, working at all.”