Deborah Baker, Family law partner with Wollens Solicitors prepares a few short articles to look at how we deal with family issues during lockdown.
The coronavirus crisis is redefining lifestyles and the boundaries of our interactions; a situation that can challenge even the strongest bonds. For couples who are struggling in their relationship, or trying to manage co-parenting, anxiety levels are likely to be heightened if it seems there is nowhere to turn, while personal movements are restricted and even the family courts are working remotely.
For me, and my colleagues across the country, being a family lawyer means being there for all the challenges, not just the day in court, and at this time we know it is more important than ever that we are available to advise, encourage and support. It is likely to involve new ways of working when face-to-face consultations are out of the question, and private telephone calls may be impossible, but even though law firm offices are closed, everyone is working to keep the doors open to support families through the crisis.
Divorce in lockdown
In China, which was first into lockdown following discovery of the virus, there have been reports of a huge surge in divorce petitions as couples emerge from the country’s stringent restrictions, with one city official in Hunan province quoted as saying that what may have seemed trivial in normal life had escalated for many couples struggling to deal with the exceptional circumstances. And a divorce lawyer in Shanghai reported a four-fold increase in caseload while commenting that incompatibility had replaced infidelity as the primary reason for seeking divorce. Bloomberg
For those in the UK who were considering or had already started the process of divorce, many will still be living together, adding to the pressure of the current lockdown. For those struggling under the relentless strain of being in each other’s company 24/7, it will be hard to find a way to release the pressure to see clearly whether the relationship has run its course, such as through couples counselling or simply taking a break from each other.
And while no-fault divorce is likely to become law once the legislation resumes its progress through Parliament, for now couples must continue to deal with one party being ‘blamed’ for the breakup or wait for the change in the law.
Grounds for divorce under the existing Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 require one party to prove their partner is at fault through adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour. Alternatively, and only if both sides agree, they can part after two years of separation. If no fault is given, and one party does not consent to the divorce, then the period of separation is extended to living apart for five years.
For those who feel compelled to act now, or as soon as we come out of lockdown, it is likely that we will see unreasonable behaviour cited as the most common ground for such divorces. Debora comments “ Most recent statistics for opposite sex couples show 36.8% of all husbands and 51.9% of all wives petitioning for divorce on this ground.”
But petitioning is only the start of what may be a long journey, with the process of divorce, negotiating over finances and family arrangements, becoming ever more complex. That’s in part because there is more at stake, particularly for middle-aged couples, when couples come to hammer out a fair division after a marriage breakdown. Wealth statistics from ONS show that by 2014 half of all households had total wealth of £225,100 or more.
If things have gone too far to be resolved, then receiving advice on what is feasible and how to approach conflict could make all the difference. You may not be able to speak on the phone or video conference if you are in lockdown with your partner, but having an email exchange with your adviser, or a live chat on social media like WhatsApp or Messenger, can bridge the gap during the current crisis. Lawyers at Wollens will continue to make themselves available to their clients in whatever way is needed in the current crisis and beyond.
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This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.