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Family law is being ‘dumbed down’

Lawyers expect to see an increase in the number of divorces as the economy improves

15 December 2014

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An increase in the number of litigants in person (LIP) in the family courts means that family law is being 'dumbed down' so that laymen can represent themselves.

The finding comes from Grant Thornton's annual matrimonial survey, in which 37 per cent of respondents reported that the lack of legal aid for family cases is a key issue facing the legal sector, as lawyers reflected that they had encountered problems dealing with LIPs and saw many judges becoming frustrated as a result.

The survey also reports that many lawyers believe this greatly reduces access to justice for many individuals who cannot afford to hire a legal professional.

Nick Andrews, a partner at Grant Thornton commented: "The introduction of the single Family Court in April 2014 is a revolutionary change, yet there is concern among respondents to the survey that the court system is not fit for purpose to support LIPs. It's too early to say whether the introduction of the Family Court will have improved this sentiment.

"The issues surrounding LIPs have also been linked to a number of other themes in this survey. Respondents see forms of alternative dispute resolution for matrimonial disputes other than attending court as linked to the levels of LIPs and they may become more popular if courts are increasingly clogged with LIPs."

In need of change

Twenty-four per cent of lawyers said that protection for cohabiting couples is their top area for legislative change. However, this does not mean giving cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples for the majority of lawyers, as 59 per cent said that they didn't believe this is what is required.

Instead, family practitioners would like to see reform in this area which is more reflective if the nature of a cohabiting relationship, and not a simply application of marriage rights.

On the other hand, the survey found that an increasing number of respondents think that cohabitants should be on an equal footing with married couples, with 19 per cent agreeing with this; up from 8 per cent last year.

More money, more divorces

A 68 per cent majority of lawyers expect to see an increase in the divorce rate as the economy improves and people's finances become more stable. Only 14 per cent of respondents did not expect to see any change in this area.

Meanwhile, half of respondents stated that financially dependent spouses would be more likely to petition now there was a better prospect of receiving a reasonable settlement.

However, Grant Thornton have also reported that its analysis of asset values suggests that any significant improvement in prospects may be some time in the future and not necessarily immediate.

The Hohn effect

On the contrary the success of London financier, Sir Chris Hohn, in successfully arguing that his wife, Jamie Cooper-Hohn, should not get half of their assets in their divorce settlement, has prompted some to suggest that divorce rates may in fact decline.

Mr Hohn argued that the couple were able to amass their wealth due to his expertise and financial knowledge, to which his former wife did not contribute.

Mrs Justice Roberts accepted that he was the “generating force” behind their financial success and noted his “financial genius”, as she ruled that Mrs Cooper-Hohn will receive a third of their wealth (£337m) instead of half, which she had argued for.

Jane Keir, senior partner at Kingsley Napley, commented on the judgement: “It seems that whilst Chris Hohn didn’t emphatically win the exceptional contribution award he was hoping for, Mrs Justice Roberts has ruled in his favour beyond the norm of a 50 per cent asset split.

“This decision is a dent to London's divorce capital reputation and opens the door for divorce lawyers to argue for bespoke divorce solutions which protect genius wealth.  Some people will see this as unfairly relegating support contributions at home to second class. Batten down the hatches for legal argument over whether a widget entrepreneur's' fortune, an astute company buy out or a fast hedge fund hundred million are "exceptional" contributions or not.”

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