Financial remedies, Islamic marriage and domestic abuse: The last week in family law

The outgoing President of the Family Division Sir James Munby has published a circular announcing a further roll-out of the piloting of specialist Financial Remedies Courts. The Courts were first piloted in the West Midlands, centred at Birmingham. They will now be extended, in a modified form, including to the East Midlands, Cheshire and Merseyside, the North-east, London and South Wales. The circular also detailed a procedure to deal with private Financial Dispute Resolution appointments (‘FDRs’). FDRs are court hearings designed to enable parties to financial remedy disputes to try to reach agreement, with the assistance of the judge. Private FDRs are a relatively new development, whereby the parties agree to the FDR being conducted out of court by a specialist family lawyer. The parties pay a fee for the lawyer, but private FDRs have several advantages, in particular that they avoid the delays involved with court listings.

A Muslim couple who went through an Islamic marriage ceremony but were not married in accordance with English law had been in a ‘void’ marriage, a judge has ruled. In the case the parties went through an Islamic marriage ceremony in Southall, in 1998. They later had four children, and held themselves out to the world at large as husband and wife, until the marriage broke down. In 2016 the wife issued divorce proceedings. The husband defended the proceedings, on the basis that the parties had never entered into a marriage valid according to English law. If that was had been the case then the wife would not have been able to make any financial remedy claims against the husband. However, Mr Justice Williams held that whilst there had been no valid marriage, there had been a void marriage, which meant that the wife could take nullity proceedings, and make a financial remedies claim within those proceedings.

The new online digital divorce system is to be extended so that it can be used by solicitors, not just members of the public. The system will be piloted by four law firms, and it is hoped that when it is rolled out nationally it will reduce the substantial delays currently being experienced by solicitors using the old paper-based system.

A report on Universal Credit and domestic abuse has been published by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. The report warns that single household payments of Universal Credit could put claimants living with domestic abuse at risk of harm, as they enable perpetrators to take charge of potentially the entire household budget, leaving survivors and their children dependent on the abusive partner for all of their basic needs. The Committee says that the Department for Work and Pensions (‘DWP’) must give serious consideration to any policies that might offer some protection to survivors of abuse and deliver fairer payments to households. Heidi Allen MP, Committee Member, said: “One of the key improvements of Universal Credit over legacy benefit systems is the way it seeks to proactively support individuals. So it can’t be right that payments are made by default as a single block to a household. In the 21st Century women deserve to be treated as independent citizens, with their own aspirations, responsibilities and challenges. Good Government develops solutions that are dynamic and responsive to the individual as well as offering value for the tax payer, so I urge the DWP to show what I know to be true – that it can deliver both.”

And finally, a report on observations of Specialist Domestic Violence Courts in the Northumbria Magistrates’ Courts has warned that defendants facing domestic abuse-related charges may be ‘gaming’ the system, in order to have the charges against them dropped. The report, commissioned by Dame Vera Baird QC, Police and Crime Commissioner for Northumbria, says that defendants may be intimidating their victims into not appearing at court, in the expectation that the magistrates will then drop the charges against them. The report makes various recommendations to deal with the issue, including calling for better support for victims and better training of court personnel.