Family Life at best can be a challenge but add to the mix a lockdown with your nearest and not so dearest, as well as financial pressures and the difficulties that home schooling or caring for elderly relations bring to it and it is not a recipe for domestic harmony.
COVID-19 has meant that relationships already under strain have completely broken down. However, there is not the privacy at present to take a Family Lawyers advice as couples are often literally within 2 metres or less of each other as they are forced to remain under the same roof.
Once lockdown has eased we anticipate a number of enquiries on how couples can go their separate ways.
The Family Courts are still operating but remotely and with huge delays. Some of the smaller Family Courts are closed with the larger Family Courts offering remote hearings by phone or video link with a reduced number of Court staff.
We anticipate that once the new normality returns some of the Court work may continue to be dealt with remotely. The Courts were already facing two or three months backlog for many of the standard tasks such as issuing divorce or financial remedy proceedings. How they will catch up will be interesting and frustrating in like measure to see. The President of the Family Division has issued a number of practice directions. Initially, it was thought that all hearings would be capable of being dealt with remotely. Careful analysis has, however, made the President conclude differently with, in particular, difficult children cases where abuse is being alleged, being unsuitable to be dealt with without a witness being present and parents having the ability to follow proceedings in person. Body language is often so important as part of a Court hearing.
Many couples who moved in together at the time of lockdown may decide not to stay together once freedom of movement is allowed. Inevitably, there will be arguments on contributions made during lockdown and whether that entitled a former cohabitee to compensation for improvements made to property or items purchased. However, some couples may decide that they want to stay together and it would be sensible to have discussed how their financial circumstances are to be regimented and whether a Cohabitation Agreement might be an idea to prevent any potential difficulty in the future.
Valuation of homes, businesses and assets generally will be hard with property prices predicted to drop by at least 20%. Liquidity to pay a departing spouse out will be challenging even allowing for a valuation to be agreed on. Will a client’s bank lend for a divorce settlement? Will that client be able to pay back the borrowings bearing in mind that if they are a business person they are probably already up to their eyes in Government loans and general debt.
We also expect Variation of Maintenance Orders to be a theme of the New World. It might prove impossible for the paying party to continue to fund a former spouse or may be just possible but only at a reduced amount and over a shorter term.
Many of the issues that were relevant at the time of the previous downturn in 2009/2010 are issues that are relevant now. However, they will be dealt with and some imagination may need to be introduced.
We are, in essence, facing the breakdown of love in a desperately different climate.
If you have any queries or feel we can help, please contact either Elizabeth Hassall or Helen Davies as part of Jolliffe & Co LLP’s experienced Family Law team. Both Elizabeth and Helen are Accredited members of Resolution, the specialist organisation for Family Lawyers. Elizabeth is recognised as a leader in her field of law in both prestigious directories, Chambers and the Legal 500.
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