COVID-19: How has it Impacted Family Law?
Being in lockdown has been extremely challenging for many families. However, for those couples who had already decided to separate or indeed their relationship was already in difficulties, the lockdown has acted like a pressure cooker. As the country came to terms with lockdown, we saw a drop off in new instructions. The relaxation of lockdown towards the end of May saw a return to pre-COVID file opening for family clients in June. We believe that many fear a second wave and therefore have decided to progress the legal element of their separation. We also predict that we will be inundated with applications for divorce once the summer holidays are over.
Initially, the government failed to clarify the situation for those parents, who either have a court agreement or mutual agreement in relation to the arrangements for their children. It was unclear whether the children could go between separate households, given the clear directive to stay at home. Clarification was then forthcoming and made it very clear that children could still move between their parent’s homes despite the lockdown. Some parents have used the situation to their advantage in order to prevent the other parent from spending time with the children. The Courts will take a dim view of anyone seeking to gain such an advantage.
The unprecedented situation will have forced parents to work together especially children of Key worker parents or indeed, if one parent has contracted the virus. Practical and sensible decisions will have had to be made. No Court order would have made provision for a global pandemic.
Even where the dispute could not be resolved by the parties directly, the family courts were unable to offer the emergency support and hearings that they had been able to pre Covid19.
One of the most fundamental and important changes to divorce law happened during the pandemic. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill received Royal assent on 25 June 2020 and implemented “No-Fault” divorce. Something positive out of such a negative period. However, no fault divorce will not be available to divorcing couples until the autumn of 2021. For now, we are stuck with laws passed in 1973 which require the allocation of blame for anybody not wishing to wait two years after their separation. This should not however be a reason to delay your divorce. Each case is very fact specific and you should take advice on whether waiting until autumn 2021 is in your best interests. Good family practitioners, like those of us at IBB, have found ways to work with the current legislation so as not to inflame the relationship between separating spouses.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on an already strained family justice system. In the good old days, you could have had a divorce through within 6 months. Now, this timeframe is more likely to be 9 to 12 months and that is providing you do not have a dispute in relation to children or financial matters. It is reported that applications for decree nisi, the mid-point in the divorce, are taking 20 weeks to be processed.
The economic uncertainty is having an impact on property valuations, company valuations and of course pension funds. A reduction income is also commonplace which will have an impact on all aspects of the financial settlement.
There is also a question mark as to whether settlements negotiated before Covid19 could be varied based on technical legal principles due to the situation being unforeseen. We are certain that there are cases before the courts of this nature and that we will shortly start see them being reported.
At the moment, clients have a dilemma as to whether or not they remain connected to their former spouse or press on with their divorce proceedings in the knowledge that their assets may be worth significantly less in the forthcoming months.
The impact on the property market will also have a direct effect upon pension valuations as many large corporations invest their pension funds in commercial property. With the mass advent of working from home, there is a possibility that commercial property values may take a hit.
Many courts closed their doors in the wake of lockdown. Hearings were vacated and relisted months into the future. It was certainly not business as usual. Family practitioners have been dealing with long lead times for court hearings and court communication for many years. The pandemic has now compounded the situation. Some courts did move to telephone hearings and then latterly to video hearings, but the huge backlog means that justice has taken a hit. The President of the Family Division has suggested that the family courts will not return to anything close to normal until the spring of 2021.
The best advice we can give is that you need to take advice. Even if you are not ready to “press the button” in terms of a divorce, planning and understanding your legal rights is key. We have a wide range of family law specialists within the team with various levels of experience. We are happy to have an initial no obligation chat over the telephone and to then offer fixed cost meetings.
Partner – Family Law