“We’re bringing family law into the 21st century” or so claims a new website that is hoping to make divorcing online a reality. But is divorcing online an option in the real world?
A new website has been launched in the USA to a limited number of users who want to take care of their divorce proceedings online. The website called separate.us is going to be aimed at people who want to turn legal terminology into plain language and reduce the cost of divorce and the associated legal fees.
The service aims to set a bench price on filing costs and legal fees and wants to do the opposite of the many websites out there concerned with making connections between people rather than breaking them.
Whether the service takes off or not is another matter. It is difficult to imagine how a complex divorce could be handled online. This is particularly the case where there might be children involved or assets that need to be distributed fairly between divorcing couples.
The Internet may be good for some things but for others like divorce and other complex legal proceedings, there will still be a need for experts in family law as there is no one size fits all when it comes to divorce. The new website also opens up the possibility of people making the wrong decisions on divorce simply because it it is easy to get it done quickly online. This could lead to regrets which may outweigh the savings made.
News reports have been discussing the current regulations concerning media reports of divorcing couples’ financial hearings. The high-profile separation of pop singers Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton has brought this issue to a head. The former couple applied jointly for an injunction to exclude the press from their family court hearing.
Mr Justice Mostyn in hearing this application stated that ‘to say that the law about the ability of the press to report ancillary relief proceedings which they are allowed to observe is a mess would be a serious understatement’. Mr Justice Mostyn felt that maintaining an injunction allowing Liam Gallagher and Nicole Appleton to be named but no-one else was unrealistic given the press comment on the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage. It was decided that only the children of the parties should not be named. Mr Justice Mostyn’s ruling on the application for an injunction has relaxed the injunction and left the door open for the judge who heard the case to provide further details in his final judgment.
The current rules on transparency in the Family Court
In 2009, legislation introduced new rules on media attendance in cases before a family court. Previously, the media had been able to attend family court cases only in family proceedings courts; the provisions in force since 2009 now allow for media attendance in the county courts and High Court and these rules now apply to the Family Court. The press are however not allowed to attend any placement or adoption proceedings, proceedings relating to a parental order under section 54 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 or any conciliation or financial dispute resolution appointments (where the judge is helping the parties on a ‘without prejudice’ basis to reach an agreement in their dispute). The press are also not allowed to identify children who are involved in family proceedings and Children Act proceedings must remain private.
The provisions concerning privacy in the family courts have been criticised by family groups, Members of Parliament and the media. Fathers’ rights groups have claimed that the hearing of child contact and residence cases in private has added to the perception of court bias against fathers.
The House of Commons Library has recently published a briefing paper focusing on the issue of confidentiality and openness in the Family Court. The paper discusses reforms in this area, in particular the Government’s support to increasing the openness of the Family Court and the President of the Family Division, Sir James Munby, issuing a consultation in August 2014 seeking views on ways to improve transparency in the family courts, including the possibility of public access.
The Conservative Government has yet to make any policy changes in respect of transparency in the Family Court; it may be that they are awaiting the outcome of the President’s consultation. However, its position on this matter has been outlined as ‘supporting steps to increase openness whilst remaining mindful of the rights to privacy of those involved in such personal proceedings’. What is clear from recent debate is that the government must intervene and decide just how transparent the family law courts should be to address the current ‘mess’ Mr Justice Mostyn refers to.
On 5th October 2015, George Osborne announced that working grandparents will be able to share parental leave in the future. The changes will increase flexibility in parental leave arrangements and support working parents during the first year of a child’s life. It is expected that legislation will be brought forward and the policy will be implemented by 2018.
This decision has been brought about as evidence shows that nearly 2 million grandparents have given up work, reduced hours or taken time off to help their children who cannot afford childcare costs. Many mothers rely on grandparents for childcare when they return to work after maternity leave. It is thought that in total, some 7 million grandparents are involved in childcare. The changes are expected to provide flexibility in working arrangements for grandparents without fear of losing their job. Parents will also be able to return to work sooner if they wish to, the changes will ensure that working families can structure their lives and arrangements for childcare in the way that works best for them.
Adoption was made a priority by the coalition, as the prime minister declared in 2012 there was ‘no more pressing issue’ than speeding up the adoption process. Between 2012-2014 the number of children completing the adoption process rose by 60%.However, latest figures released by the Department for Education show the number of children granted an adoption placement order has dropped by 24% from 2014.
The National Adoption Leadership Board has linked decreases in placement orders to the impact of two recent court judgments, Re B (A Child)  and Re B-S (Children) . These cases concerned appeals by parents opposing the adoption of their children. The number of looked after children has increased steadily over the past seven years however the majority of children looked after are placed with foster carers. Of the total looked after children in March 2015, 75% of them were cared for in a foster placement.
A spokesperson from the Department for Education has stated that the reason for the decrease in the number of children with an adoption decision is a result of the way local authorities have interpreted some court judgments. The Adoption Leadership Board has therefore published guidance to clarify what these judgments mean and to allow clear and confident adoption decisions to be made.
The Chief Executive of Barnardo’s, Javed Khan, has expressed deep concern at the fall in the number of children being put forward for adoption. Mr Khan feels that Local authorities shouldn’t ‘shy away’ from acting decisively on adoption. If the fall in adoption numbers continues ‘unchecked’ it is thought that a real crisis could occur as children will be stuck in limbo or miss out completely on the chance of growing up in their own loving and supportive family.
The divorce proceedings taking place between Britpop icon Noel Gallagher and his soon-to-be ex wife Nicole Appleton have so far been subject to reporting restrictions but an application to lift reporting restrictions has provoked resistance from the pair.
While being a celebrity gives you many advantages in life such as wealth and status it doesn’t buy freedom or privacy. Celebrities find themselves even more in the spotlight when it comes to divorce because there are always a large number of fans and other interested people out there who like to know who gets what in any settlement.
The Appleton and Gallagher are not simply going to give up the restrictions without a fight and, according to reports in the Guardian this month, a landmark legal dispute will be focused on what can be deemed as being in the public interest when it comes to reporting on the case.
The case for reporting restrictions to be lifted rests on the need for people to learn from the case and also how assets are divided in such cases. This is a valid argument and one that is likely to see restrictions lifted if it is also found that reporting on the case would not cause either party damage or distress. The couples private life has already been the subject of tabloid gossip.