Sharia, legal aid and a probate claim: The last week in family law

A study carried out by the relationship charity Relate has suggested that almost one in five UK couples argue regularly or consider separating. The study, which was based on a survey of 20,980 people in relationships from 2013-15, indicated that some 2.87 million people were in what Relate described as “distressed” relationships. Dr David Marjoribanks, the Evaluation and Research Officer at Relate, expressed his concern at the effect of such relationships upon any children involved, pointing out that the conflict in intact relationships can be just as damaging to them as when relationships end. He said: “Children who grow up with parents who have highly-conflicted relationships are much more likely to have mental and physical health problems, to not do as well at school and end up in antisocial behaviour and criminality even.”

Research by the University of Central Lancashire suggests that one in five of all children born in a single year in England was referred to social services before they reached age five. The study, of children born in 2009-10, suggests that up to 150,000 pre-school children were reported over fears of abuse or neglect. However, the study said that most of these were unnecessary, with only 25% of referrals being formally investigated, and only 10% leading to protection plans. The researchers said that while public and professional vigilance was welcome, the number of alerts received by social services meant staff were wasting their time on innocent families, and making it harder to find the children who are at risk.

Two in three domestic abuse victims are unaware of their legal aid eligibility – increasing their risk of harm, according to a legal needs survey of 8,912 people in England and Wales carried out by Ipsos MORI. The survey found that 20 per cent of domestic violence sufferers thought they could not access legal aid, and that 47 per cent did not know. The survey also found that some 83 per cent were unaware that legal aid was available for problems related to relationship breakdown, while 86 per cent did not know that mediation was available for such issues. Commenting on the survey’s findings, President of the Law Society Jonathan Smithers said: “Awareness of legal aid eligibility is low. People surveyed did not understand which issues were covered by legal aid and how to get advice on issues.” On the fact that two in three domestic abuse victims were unaware of legal aid eligibility, he said: “This impacts on the most vulnerable in our society who may find themselves trapped in violent relationships.”

Home Secretary Theresa May has launched an independent review into the application of Sharia Law in England and Wales. The review, which will be chaired by Professor Mona Siddiqui, is in response to evidence that some Sharia councils may be working in a discriminatory and unacceptable way, seeking to legitimise forced marriage and issuing divorces that are unfair to women, contrary to the teachings of Islam. The review is expected to be completed next year. Theresa May said: “A number of women have reportedly been victims of what appear to be discriminatory decisions taken by Sharia councils, and that is a significant concern. There is only one rule of law in our country, which provides rights and security for every citizen. Professor Siddiqui, supported by a panel with a strong balance of academic, religious and legal expertise, will help us better understand whether and the extent to which Sharia law is being misused or exploited and make recommendations to the government on how to address this.”

And finally, a husband has been allowed by the Court of Appeal to challenge the validity of his late mother-in-law’s will. In the case the parties reached an agreement as part of their divorce settlement that if the wife were to inherit more than £100,000 from her mother’s estate, she would keep the £100,000 and the balance would be divided equally between the husband and herself. On her death, the wife’s mother left £100,000 to the wife in her will and (after some small specific legacies) the balance of her estate (estimated at £150,000) to the wife’s children. The husband brought a probate claim to challenge the validity of the will, alleging that it was not properly executed. The claim was initially refused, on the basis that the husband had no sufficient interest in the will, and therefore no standing to bring the claim. However, the Court of Appeal disagreed, saying that the husband did have a sufficient interest in the will, and that justice required him to be able to bring his claim.