7 May 2020 | Comment | Article by Adrienne Donneky
The world may feel like it has ground to a halt right now, but if you’re struggling with relationship issues, it’s important to know that you can still get the legal support you need.
While many solicitors’ offices and court buildings are closed – you can access advice and, if needed, the court – albeit with some adjustments to the approach taken and the practical steps needed.
Here’s our advice to ensure you can keep moving forward with resolving your family law issues.
- Get help
Whether your issue relates to separation, divorce, finances or arrangements for your children, the first step is to meet with an experienced family solicitor.
During social distancing, this will need to happen over the phone or, if you prefer, by video call. At this first meeting, we’ll take your full instructions, advise you, and you can decide what you want to do next - whether immediately or later.
Our specialist family solicitors recognise that, with the current lockdown situation, we need to work around our clients and arrange times when others – like a partner or child - aren’t listening and when it is safe and appropriate to speak. This could be early or late in the day for example.
Divorce and Civil Partnership proceedings can still be issued, either on paper or online in the usual way, so it’s still possible to progress through to a Decree Absolute, bringing a marriage to an end, if you don’t want to delay.
Mediation is generally the most conciliatory and cost effective way to reach an agreement - whether in connection with finances or children.
Despite the lockdown, mediators are offering their services by phone or video call. While this may be more difficult to conduct than by face to face, we’d still encourage you to try this to keep communication going with an ex if at all possible.
We can arrange this for you and it can help take the pressure off - especially if you’re in the pressure cooker of living under the same roof. A neutral mediator can help you to progress matters - rather than feel you’re just arguing about the past.
The first step to resolve any financial issues that come with divorce or Civil Partnership dissolution is normally an ‘exchange of financial disclosure’ on a standard form.
We can still prepare and exchange your disclosure in the usual way – electronically. We can then consider the disclosure with you and advise you on appropriate settlement proposals.
If mediation or negotiation through a solicitor fails, we can still issue the necessary court financial remedy application for you.
The Courts are still moving financial applications forward, although they’re encouraging family lawyers to try to agree the early steps to be taken in such proceedings before the court hearing – such as valuation for houses and pensions. While the courts are still dealing with these hearings, they’re not discouraging the two parties involved to ask for a delay if it is practical to do so.
- Maintenance Payments
The impact of being furloughed or having a reduction in salary could mean that you – or the other party – can’t afford to make maintenance payments if there is already a financial order in existence. The court has the power to vary such orders, but an application is likely to take many months to resolve. It’s best to take a sensible and realistic approach at this time.
The reality is that, if your partner’s income has gone down and they have insufficient income to pay, the court is like to sanction a downward variation. In those circumstances it would be sensible to negotiate reasonable and practical interim arrangements until things return to normal and avoid costly court proceedings.
We can still enter into correspondence with your ex-partner to set out any issues you have. For example, trying to agree on how much time your child is to spend with each of you or which school your child should attend.
Try to be practical when agreeing to arrangements for your children. A parent shouldn’t use the lockdown period as a reason to stop the children seeing the other parent and whether parents have a good relationship or not, it is not in a child’s interest to be placed in the middle of a dispute between their parents.
The Courts probably won’t look favourably on people who have taken unfair advantage of the COVID-19 crisis or have used this period of lockdown to exert power or manipulate the other parent.
If matters cannot be agreed, and mediation has failed, applications can still be issued at court in the usual way. However, in almost all circumstances, hearings are currently taking place remotely - by telephone or video link.
If there is already a court order in place in relation to your children, the current guidance is that this should still be followed - with children moving between parents’ homes in accordance with an order, despite the lockdown and social distancing rules laid down by the government.
If however, for genuine reasons an order cannot be followed, then you should try to be practical about making sure you honour the spirit of the order - whether that means daily video chats instead of a visit or switching the length of visits around to reduce the back and forth between homes.
Try to consider whether it is appropriate for arrangements to be altered if the other parent can help with the homeschooling and work/life balance, which so many parents are struggling to achieve.
If you’re living with someone and your relationship has broken down, we can help you negotiate issues, for example in connection with the ownership of the home.
If court proceedings are needed, it’s likely these matters will take longer to resolve than usual. Unless it’s an urgent matter involving domestic abuse and the removal of one person from a home to protect the other, it’s likely to be lower on the court’s general priority list. However, this shouldn’t stop you trying your best to negotiate and sort things out - whether through mediation, arbitration or through solicitors.
- Domestic Abuse
If you’re suffering domestic abuse, then we can help you in making an application to the court for a non-molestation order and/ or an order requiring the perpetrator to vacate the home. Such matters are, quite rightly, being prioritised by the court.
If you have an issue that is truly urgent - whether to do with your safety or that of your children in the home, divorce, finances, living arrangements or child arrangements - then please get in touch.
The Court will give absolute priority to genuine emergency applications but is also trying to progress all other matters as far as possible. We’re on hand to advise and assist you.
None of us know when, or if, things will go back to what we thought of as normal. But, relationships and families will continue to form during this period - and unfortunately separate - and we’re here to help with the practical arrangements of this and to help you achieve a satisfactory outcome.
About the Authors:
Adrienne Donneky is Head of our Family team and has practised in the area of family law for over 16 years. She advises individuals on a wide range of family matters, including divorce and disputes between parents in relation to their children. Adrienne has particular expertise in cases concerning the resolution of financial issues on divorce and between unmarried couples on separation. Adrienne is also experienced in the preparation of prenuptial, postnuptial and cohabitation agreements.
Belinda Moseley is a family law solicitor at Hugh James. She advises clients across the spectrum of private family law matters including divorce, cohabitation breakdown and children arrangements.