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Reflections on a decade of change in family law

Today is not only the last day of the year: it is the last day of the decade that began on January 1 2010. Our thoughts turn not only to the future but to the past as well. A lot has changed over the last ten years.

A world in which same sex couple cannot marry already seems distant – as does one in which legal aid was freely available for most family law disputes: but that was the world in which we lived in 2010. Let’s take a look back at some of the most significant and far reaching developments of the last ten years.

2012

Of all the changes we have seen over the last ten years, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) has arguably had the most far-reaching consequences. LASPO received royal assent in May 2012 and came into force the following year. It had varied ends but a central component was the elimination of legal aid for most private family disputes (i.e. those not involving the state). It remains available – in a limited way – for cases involving domestic violence and for mediation. LASPO also removed legal aid from a whole range of other legal matters.

At its launch, many were concerned that LASPO would significantly diminish access to justice for the less well-off and this prediction has proved to be entirely on the money, if you’ll pardon the fully intended pun. For several years now, family courtrooms across England and Wales have struggled to cope with lengthening lines of unrepresented litigants –  known as ‘litigants in person’. Confused and uncertain as they try to navigate their way through a process built from the ground up for lawyers, litigants in person have stretched resources and brought further pressure to an already strained and underfunded system.

2013

At the dawn of the decade, same sex couples had been able to formalise their relationship in a legally recognised civil partnership for just five years. The first registrations under the Civil Partnership Act 2004 were accepted in England and Wales on 21 December 2005.

But civil partnerships, devised as an alternative to marriage without the social and religious overtones, left many in the LGBT community unsatisfied. They wanted the full package: and they got it surprisingly quickly. In March 2012 the then coalition government launched a public consultation on the possible introduction of same sex marriage legislation. The results reassured them that public opinion had shifted sufficiently for major change. A draft bill was introduced in January 2013 and (most of) the resulting Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act duly came into force on 13 March the following year. True marriage equality had arrived.

It was a heady time for the LGBT community. Oher western nations introduced  similar legislation around the same time and just a few years on, same sex marriage seems entirely ordinary and uncontroversial to most of us.

2014

It did not attract a great deal of press attention but the Children and Families Act 2014 introduced what was, in my view, a very humane change to public family law. Alongside enforcement of a 26 week timetable for care proceedings, it granted children in foster care the right to remain with their host families until the age of 21 if both parties agreed to this. Previously, of course, they had been pushed out into a frequently cold and uncaring world at the age of only 18. Children in care are amongst the most vulnerable sectors of the population, so the ‘right to remain’, as it was dubbed, made a big difference to many such youngsters: it meant three more years of nurturing family life, three more years of growing up and establishing themselves. Most young people fortunate enough to still be with their own families do not face such pressures.

2015 

The family law system gradually shifted its approach to the average divorce over the decade, increasingly treating it as a bureaucratic, form-filling matter to dispensed with as quickly as possible. One clear manifestation of this shift was the centralisation of those family courts dealing with the bureaucracy of divorce.

In April 2015 HM Courts & Tribunals Service published a document entitled Changes To The Divorce Process In England And Wales: Q&A. This set out the centralisation schedule. This resulted in 11 ‘divorce centres’ across England and Wales:

  • Bradford
  • Bury St Edmunds
  • Durham
  • Doncaster
  • Harrogate
  • Liverpool
  • Neath
  • Newport
  • Nottingham
  • Stoke
  • Southampton
  • Wrexham

Each centre processes applications for ‘financial remedies’ (spousal maintenance), as well as divorce filings from the surrounding regions. But this new approach is now set to be phased out as well. In May this year, Family Division President Sir Andrew McFarlane announced plans to replace these barely-out-of-the-starting-gate divorce centres with an entirely online system run from the national Civil and Family Service Centre in Stoke on Trent: a change very much in line with a broader roll-out by the government of online options for legal services. 

2018

The introduction of same sex marriage created a curious legal anomaly. If they wished to formalise and celebrate their relationship, same sex couples now had a choice: full marriage or civil partnerships. Opposite sex couples, by contrast, had no alternative to marriage.

The government opted to sit back and assess the situation rather than simply abolish civil partnerships outright, as many expected them to. Demand for the latter dropped but did not disappear. Meanwhile, determined couple Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan spearheaded a hgh profile campaign to open civil partnerships to opposite sex couples. They wished to enter a civil partnership themselves, believing such unions to be more egalitarian in nature and free from the sexist associations of traditional marriage. Undeterred by failures in the High Court and Court of Appeal, Steinfeld and Keidan took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Justices finally ruled in their favour last year, declaring that the exclusion of opposite sex couple from civil partnerships was not compatible with human rights legislation.

Despite all the distractions of Brexit, the government moved fairly quickly to change the law in response to this ruling. On 2 December this year, opposite sex couples finally gained the right to enter civil partnerships.

The future

So there you have it: a decade of pretty significant change. How different will the world of family law be in December 2029? That’s a huge and probably unanswerable question, but one thing I am pretty sure of is that information technology will be playing a much greater role in the administration of justice by then. The first tentative efforts to migrate online seen over the last few years will certainly accelerate decisively: but what online litigants gain in convenience as a result they may lose in personal service fully tailored to individual circumstances. A balance must be struck.

Image by Epic Fireworks via Flickr (Creative Commons)