Family Lawyers Give Cautious Welcome To New Divorce Guideline Plan

Clarity For Couples Backed ‘But Mediator Neutrality Must Remain’


Proposals to provide separating couples with new guidelines regarding how property and income will be distributed in the event of a relationship breakdown have been cautiously welcomed by family law experts, who revealed concerns regarding the impact the information may have on mediators.

Justice Minister Simon Hughes has announced that the Family Justice Council is to take forward recent recommendations from the Law Commission that the law related to financial needs on divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership must be clarified.

The move has come after a Law Commission report revealed there was confusion about how one party would be needed to meet the other’s financial needs following the breakdown of a relationship.

According to the Government, the new guidance expected later this year, will dispel myths and allow couples to approach separation with realistic expectations, reduce regional variations in the interpretation of ‘financial needs’ and allow mediators to offer financial advice to couples looking to settle out of court.

The announcement of such steps has been welcomed by Irwin Mitchell’s Family Law team, which specialises in providing advice to couples on the separation process and helping them to achieve an amicable agreement both in and out of the courts.

Expert Opinion
It is very welcome to see the Government investing both time and money into providing clarity around this hugely important issue, which will not only even out regional variations in how cases are dealt with, but also provide practical guidance to couples about the law so they can better plan for the future.

"Such guidance will also be welcome by the family law community, as it will allow specialist lawyers to provide an even greater level of support to their clients.

"However, there is a certain level of caution which needs to be considered from the outset. For example, it is a concern to see the Government suggest mediators will be tasked with giving both legal and financial advice.

"A mediator’s role is to assist people to reach an agreement, with such work being coordinated alongside separate legal and financial advice. Mediators certainly give valuable information, but advice could be regarded as something that would damage their neutrality and – potentially – their overall value to the couple they are working with.

"It is also difficult to escape the conclusion that the Government’s focus is on saving money, fundamentally by cutting the number of people approaching lawyers or the courts. Care must be taken to ensure such steps are not at the expense of fairness and justice, where, for example, one person may be in a more vulnerable economic position and needs the protection of the law.”

"While it is an extremely useful tool to help couples reach agreement upon separation, medication is not an answer for everybody and this should be recognised.”

"A disappointment is that this announcement does not address the Law Commission’s proposals for the introduction of qualifying nuptial agreements”.

"This concept received a very positive response from the legal sector and could be vital in preventing many people from facing the cost and stress of going through the courts. We hope the Government is able to announce some plans on this, as well as a timetable for reform – and not repeat the lack of action they took regarding proposed reforms of laws related to unmarried couples."
Alison Hawes, Partner