Although we start 2021 in yet another lockdown, we wish you a ‘Happy New Year’. Amid the national lockdown, Holland Family Law is still operating on a remote basis, which means you can call us, get in touch via our website, email us or send us a message via our social media channels – you can still reach out for legal help.
2020 proved to be a challenging year for us all. For Holland Family Law, last year was one of the busiest on record with divorce and separation enquires at an all-time high, increased enquiries about child care arrangements amid lockdown restrictions and dealing with a rising number of domestic abuse cases.
Thankfully, we have been able to continue offering support when you need us most. As we look ahead for what 2021 has in store for family law, we acknowledge that 2020 has been one of adaptation for our profession and this year will certainly be another one of transition and change.
For your benefit, we wanted to update you on some of the significant changes to UK family law in 2021.
Family Courts and the National Lockdown
Not so much a change, but an update. UK Family Courts remain operational despite the national lockdown. However, many are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of hearings, many of which had to be cancelled and rescheduled. There is a significant backlog and processing for new hearings is subject to long delays.
Holland Family Law is working on the basis of trying to keep family issues out of the courts in the current climate to avoid cases facing delays and potentially increasing costs.
The completion of the Brexit transitional period on 31 December 2020 brings with it significant changes to UK family law in 2021. For divorcing couples in particular, where there is a UK-EU cross border element, divorce is now less straightforward.
While there is currently no clear guidance on what the post-Brexit era will look like for international couples seeking to divorce, it’s likely that couples with ties to an EU member state looking to divorce through the court system in England and Wales, or have a divorce agreement which has been filed and finalised in the UK, automatically recognised by other EU member nations, could find themselves locked in a lengthy and costly jurisdiction dispute over where their case should be heard if there’s a delay in issuing proceedings.
In recent years, calls for divorce law reform have gathered momentum. In early 2020, no-fault divorce was close to becoming a reality, only for the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 to be shelved as coronavirus struck the UK.
However, on 25 June 2020, the act finally received Royal Assent signalling a landmark moment and the biggest shake-up of divorce laws for 50 years.
No-fault divorce is expected to come into effect in the autumn of this year, and is one of the most anticipated changes to UK family law in 2021. The need for separating couples to find fault in order to divorce will be scrapped, and instead couples – either jointly or by one spouse only – can make a statement explaining the irretrievable breakdown of their marriage.
The reforms mean that the Court will no longer have to conduct a thorough examination to establish the reasons for marital breakdown and will instead take couples at their word.
The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 also brings with it several other key changes. For the first time in UK law, couples can submit a joint divorce application and will remove the ability for one party to contest a divorce if the other party wants to split.
The Decree Nisi is set to be replaced by a Conditional Divorce Order and the Decree Absolute will be replaced with a Final Divorce Order.
Domestic Abuse Reform
On 25 June 2020, the government announced that UK Family Courts would undergo a major overhaul to ensure that the victims of domestic abuse, along with their children, receive greater protections.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violence cases have surged, prompting the government to take action. Under sweeping reforms, domestic abuse victims will be given access to separate building entrances and waiting rooms, plus they will be shielded by protective screens to minimise interaction with an alleged abuser in Court.
The domestic abuse reforms will also make it easier for judges to issue barring orders to prevent domestic abusers from continuously subjecting victims to Court appearances.
The reforms will build on the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill, which is currently before parliament having undergone its first reading on 7 July 2020. A date for the second reading has not yet been disclosed.
The Domestic Abuse Bill is set to make provisions for a number of key changes, including:
- Creating a statutory definition of domestic abuse, which emphasises that domestic abuse is not limited to physical violence and includes emotional, coercive or controlling and economic abuse.
- Establishing in law the office of Domestic Abuse Commissioner and setting out the Commissioner’s functions and power.
- Placing a duty on local authorities in England to provide support to victims of domestic abuse and their children in refuges and other safe accommodation.
- Prohibiting perpetrators of abuse from cross-examining their victims in person in the Civil and Family Courts in England and Wales.
- Providing that all eligible homeless victims of domestic abuse automatically have ‘priority need’ for homelessness assistance.
- As well as non-statutory commitments which include promoting and issuing guidance on relationship and sex education, and investing in domestic abuse training for responding agencies and professionals.
Changes we’d like to See to UK Family Law in 2021
While the changes to UK family law in 2021 outlined above are of the greatest significance, we hope to see several other changes in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
For instance, we hope that consideration is given to reforming the financial implications of cohabiting couples who have been living together during lockdown.