Looked after children, child maintenance and cohabitants’ rights: The last week in family law

The number of looked after children in England and Wales continues to rise, according to the latest figures released by the Department for Education. There were 68,840 looked after children at 31 March 2014, an increase of 1% compared to 31 March 2013 and an increase of 7% compared to 31 March 2010. The numbers have increased steadily over the past five years. Adoptions are also increasing. There were 5,050 looked after children adopted during the year ending 31 March 2014, an increase of 26% from 2013 and an increase of 58% from 2010. Although the number of looked after children adopted fell between 2010 and 2011, the number of these adoptions has since increased and is now at its highest point since the start of the current collection in 1992.

A report by the Department for Work and Pensions has produced numbers and percentages of what it terms effective family-based arrangements made by separated parents after contacting the Child Maintenance Options service. According to the report, 15% of parents contacting Child Maintenance Options choose an effective family-based arrangement, which is defined as either a regular financial arrangement where at least some of the agreed amount is always/usually received on time and whether the parent considers the arrangement to be working very/fairly well, or an ‘ad hoc’ arrangement which includes a financial element (or transaction in kind e.g. school uniform) and whether the parent considers the arrangement to be working very/fairly well.

The Cohabitation Rights Bill, introduced by Lords Marks, had its second reading in the House of Lords on the 12th of December and passed through to Committee stage. The Bill aims to give “certain protections for persons who live together as a couple or have lived together as a couple; and to make provision about the property of deceased persons who are survived by a cohabitant; and for connected purposes”.

A challenge to the lawfulness of changes to legal aid for domestic violence victims launched by the Rights of Women campaign group and backed by the Law Society has reached the High Court. Rules introduced in April 2013 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act require victims of domestic violence to provide a prescribed form of evidence in order to apply for family law legal aid. The government claimed that the measure would protect cases involving domestic violence from its cuts in the scope of legal aid. However a report published by Rights of Women, Women’s Aid Federation England and Welsh Women’s Aid shows that despite changes to the list of evidence introduced in April 2014, nearly 40% of women affected by violence do not have the required forms of evidence and face the choice of paying for a solicitor privately, representing themselves against the perpetrator in court or doing nothing.

The increased number of litigants in person (‘LiPs’) has attracted a strong response from family lawyers in this year’s Grant Thornton matrimonial survey. In addition to the 23% listing LiPs as an issue, a further 14% list the lack of legal aid for most family cases as a key issue (37% in total). Lawyers have also expressed concern that family law in general is being ‘dumbed down’ to make way for more LiPs, whilst others reflect that they have experienced problems dealing with/helping LiPs and have seen judges becoming frustrated as a result. Other key issues found by the survey included that some respondents felt that the removal of legal aid, whether or not it has resulted in more LiPs, reduces the ability to access justice for many individuals, and that a large number of respondents thought that the courts are not fit for purpose.

And finally, lawyers have warned that London could lose its reputation as the divorce capital of the world, after details of a High Court judgment involving the largest settlement of its kind were published last Friday. City financier Sir Christopher Hohn was ordered to pay his estranged wife Jamie Cooper-Hohn $530m from available assets of just under $1.5bn. While the award is believed to be the highest of its kind made by a judge in England, it has been suggested that the departure from a 50-50 split, in part due to the husband’s special financial contribution, could make London a less attractive place for the ‘homemaking party’ (as against the ‘money earning party’) to issue divorce proceedings.