Maintenance, divorce and courts: The last week in family law

The Supreme Court has allowed an appeal by a husband against a ruling that he should pay his ex-wife’s housing costs, despite the fact that those costs were provided for in an agreed divorce settlement in 2002. Under the settlement Maria Mills received a lump sum of £230,000 with which to rehouse herself, plus maintenance from her husband Graham of £13,200 per annum. In the event, Mrs Mills exhausted the capital by entering into a series of unwise financial transactions, and so had to live in rented accommodation. Mr Mills later applied to the court to have the maintenance reduced or stopped, and Mrs Mills made a cross-application to have the maintenance increased. The applications were heard by a judge in 2015, who declined to vary the maintenance, either upwards or downwards. Mrs Mills appealed against this decision, and the Court of Appeal increased the maintenance, to cover all of her housing costs. Mr Mills appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal, saying that the judge at the original hearing was entitled to decline to vary the maintenance so as to require Mr Mills to pay all of Mrs Mill’s housing costs. Whilst the decision is a victory for Mr Mills, his lawyers have pointed out that he will still be paying the maintenance, with “no end in sight”.

Resolution, the association of family lawyers, and The Law Society have joined the domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid in calling for the government to urgently bring forward legislation to prevent the cross-examination of domestic abuse victims by their alleged abusers in the family courts. The call came as the matter was debated in Parliament last week. The government previously drafted legislation to deal with the issue, but that was dropped due to lack of time in the run-up to the General Election last year. Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said: “For far too long, survivors have endured continued abuse at the hands of their abuser in the family courts. We know that perpetrators of domestic abuse are using the family courts to continue to control and abuse victims, and that the family courts’ failure to consistently safeguard survivors during the court process is enabling that abuse. Enough is enough.”

Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former President of the Family Division, has introduced a new private members’ bill seeking to force a review of the law on divorce. If enacted, the Divorce (etc.) Law Review Bill would force the Government to start a review within six months of the Bill being passed, and then report to Parliament upon the conclusions of the review, and of any proposals which it makes. The Bill says that the review must in particular consider replacing the current law with a system of no-fault divorce. Under the system the sole ground for divorce would be irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, and the only evidence required would be the making of an application to the court, and confirmation of the application. The application could be made by one or both parties. Either or both parties may confirm the application, but only after nine months have elapsed from the date of the application if it was made jointly or, in the case of an application made by one party, the date that the other party was given notice of the application. The Bill received a First Reading on the 18th of July, and will have its Second Reading on a date to be announced.

And finally, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has published its report on HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s £1.2 billion programme to modernise the courts. The report calls the programme “highly ambitious” and says that “there is a significant risk that HMCTS will fail to deliver the benefits it expects”. Chair of Resolution’s Family Law Reform Group Jo Edwards said: “We welcome the committee’s report, which should send a clear signal to HMCTS that they need to rethink how they are proceeding with the Courts Modernisation Programme. Resolution members regularly report delays in their local courts, and one in two said in our survey that the court they’ve used historically is earmarked for closure … We hope HMCTS will take note of what the Public Accounts Committee have said today, will reflect on the devastating impact the courts programme is having on families, and will now engage more meaningfully with Resolution members and other court users across the country. Officials need to ensure the programme delivers real improvements to the courts system, without further restricting access to justice, and isn’t simply a cost-cutting exercise.”