Whistleblowing, civil partnerships and court statistics: The last week in family law

A whistleblowing case has raised “a novel, if not unique, set of circumstances”, according to Mr Justice Holman. The case concerned a couple who were divorced in 2013. They agreed a financial settlement, which was made into a court order in March 2014. In due course the wife became very dissatisfied with some of the terms of that order, and applied for it to be set aside. Her application was dismissed in December 2017, but in January 2018 the court was sent a quantity of documents from a “whistle blower”, who was employed as a paralegal in the firm of solicitors who had been acting on behalf of the husband. Copies of the documents were sent to both parties. The wife then applied to set aside the December 2017 order, on the grounds of “perjury and perverting the course of justice” committed by the husband and his legal team. As Mr Justice Holman explained, the case raises ‘new and grave issues’ as to whether the documents are protected by legal professional privilege. In view of the difficulties and significance of the case he directed that it should be considered at the highest possible level. He therefore directed that it should be listed for hearing by the President of the Family Division.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the law on civil partnerships, that only allows same-sex couples to enter into them, is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The ruling came as the Supreme Court considered the case of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, an opposite-sex couple who wish to enter into a civil partnership because they have genuine ideological objections to marriage, based upon what they consider to be its historically patriarchal nature. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the law discriminates against opposite-sex couples, and made a declaration that it was incompatible with the Convention. The government must now decide what, if anything, to do about the incompatibility.

The Ministry of Justice has published its latest quarterly statistics for the Family Court, for the period January to March 2018. Amongst the main points were that 63,100 new cases were started in family courts in that period, down 4% on January to March 2017 due to falls in adoption, financial remedy, private law children and matrimonial cases; that the number of private law children applications and disposals were down 5% and 7% respectively compared with the same period of 2017; and that there were 27,401 divorce petitions made during the period, down 4% on the previous year. The average time to Decree Nisi and Decree Absolute was up 3 weeks (to 27 weeks) and 2 weeks (to 51 weeks) respectively over the same period.

The fathers’ rights charity Families Need Fathers has claimed that thousands of parents are falsely stating that they have been the victims of domestic abuse, in order to obtain legal aid and stop estranged partners from seeing their children. In 2013 legal aid was abolished for most private law family matters, but was retained for cases in which the applicant or a child had been the victim of domestic abuse. The charity suspects that solicitors’ firms are talking parents into seeking non-molestation orders because it enables them to qualify for legal aid, from which both the legal profession and the complainant could benefit. A spokesman for the charity said: “We’re getting a lot of people coming to us talking about false allegations, whether it’s grossly exaggerating events or even completely fabricating them. And yet the impact of the order can take a parent down a path that can be very difficult to return from.”

And finally, there have been a number of appointments to the senior judiciary. Lady Justice Arden DBE and Lord Justice Kitchin will become Supreme Court Justices on 1 October 2018, followed by Lord Justice Sales on 11 January 2019. Meanwhile, Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, Mrs Justice Rose and Mrs Justice Simler are to be appointed as Lady Justices of Appeal, and Mr Justice Baker, Mr Justice Green, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave and Mr Justice Males are to be appointed as Lord Justices of Appeal.