Procedural errors, pets and prenuptials: The last week in family law

The BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show has reported that a victim of domestic violence was assaulted after a social worker twice disclosed the address of her safe house to her abusive ex-husband. It was claimed that the social worker believed it was the husband’s “parental right” to know where his children were. Nushra Mansuri, from the British Association of Social Workers, said incidents like this “should never happen”. She went on to say that social workers are “trained extensively in safeguarding in domestic violence cases”, and have a “very clear responsibility”: “It is a given not to disclose information that could make a parent unsafe, or put their life at risk.” The local social services have acknowledged that they “fell well short of the expected standard”, and the woman has received an apology and a ‘small amount’ of compensation.

A number of orders made in a financial remedies case have been set aside by the Court of Appeal, after it found a series of procedural errors with how the case was handled. In the case the husband appealed against an interim maintenance order, orders enforcing payment of the maintenance and the final financial remedies order. Giving the leading judgment the Senior President of Tribunals Sir Ernest Ryder said that the husband was not given the ‘elementary procedural protections’ he had a right to expect, as orders were made against him without him being given the opportunity to respond. He said that ‘on any numbers of bases’ the decision made at the conclusion of the final hearing was procedurally unfair. Accordingly, the order was set aside and it was directed that the application for a financial remedy order should be re-heard.

Alaska has become the first state in the USA to empower judges to take into account the “well-being of the animal” in custody disputes involving non-human family members. Amendments to the state divorce statute, which became effective on 17 January 2017, expressly require courts to address the interests of companion animals when deciding how to assign ownership in divorce and dissolution proceedings. The statute now provides that “in a judgment in an action for divorce or action declaring a marriage void or at any time after judgment, the court may provide . . .  if an animal is owned, for the ownership or joint ownership of the animal, considering the well-being of the animal”.

A wife has claimed that her millionaire husband tricked her into signing a prenuptial agreement to protect his fortune, by telling her it was a “just a piece of paper”. The couple, who are both Swedish, entered into the agreement during a romantic weekend at a luxury hotel near Niagara Falls nearly 17 years ago, following which they married and moved to England. The details of the case have emerged in a ruling by Mr Justice Francis in the High Court in December. He heard how the wife had argued that the Niagara agreement was unfair and that she was entitled to half of an £11 million fortune. However, he found that the prenuptial agreement was binding and he was therefore only able to award the wife half of the net proceeds of sale of the former matrimonial home, amounting to around £650,000. The wife is also pursuing a maintenance claim in Sweden.

Baroness Deech’s Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill, which intends to amend the law relating to financial settlements following divorce, received its second reading in the House of Lords on Friday. The Bill aims to make the law clearer, for example by making prenuptial agreements binding, and providing for equal division of ‘post-marital assets’, i.e. those assets acquired after the marriage, save for inheritances and gifts. The Bill has been committed to the Committee of the whole house, on a date to be announced.

And finally, a transgender woman has been denied direct contact with her five children, on the basis they would be shunned by their ultra-Orthodox Charedi Jewish community if she were allowed to meet them. The case concerned an application by a father for contact with the children, where the parents’ marriage ended in June 2015 when the father left home to live as a transgender person. Expressing “real regret” Mr Justice Jackson concluded that the father’s application for direct contact must be refused, due to the likelihood of the children and their mother being marginalised or excluded by the community. In the circumstances, he ordered indirect contact only, via letters four times a year.