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The Queen’s Speech: set to be another missed opportunity for Family Law?

  • Divorce, cohabitation and pre-nuptial legislation set be omitted from Queen’s Speech 2017 as Brexit dominates
  • Some families and individuals will continue to be prejudiced by outdated laws which no longer reflect society
  • Fiona Turner, partner and family law specialist at national law firm Weightmans LLP, calls for urgent reform to family law

“Key family law reforms are expected to be absent from tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech, representing a missed opportunity for outdated legislation to be brought in line with modern society.

“With Brexit negotiations dominating proceedings, urgently-needed reforms to divorce, cohabitation and pre-nuptial legislations are likely to be kicked into the long grass and remain unaddressed.”

No fault divorces

“Divorce law was last significantly reformed in the 1970s and reform is long overdue. We’d welcome Government legislation to tackle the requirement for fault to be cited in a divorce petition unless a couple has been separated for more than two years. This outdated requirement can lead to conflict and prevent parties from moving forward constructively to resolve financial and child-related issues.

“Research by Resolution in 2015 revealed 27% of those who cited fault in their divorce petitions admitted that it was not the real reason for the divorce.  They would have preferred a non-fault based separation and to divorce in a more conciliatory way.”

Cohabitation rules

“The number of cohabiting couple families in the UK has more than doubled since 1996 to 3.3m families in 2016 according to the Office of National Statistics [Families and Households in the UK: 2016].

“This trend looks set to continue, with research from the Marriage Foundation in 2014 suggesting that more than half of 20 year olds in the UK will never marry.

“Unfortunately this generational shift towards co-habitation hasn’t been matched by a shift in legislation to protect couples who choose not to marry. There remains a huge misconception that being a ‘common law spouse’ gives financial rights. This is not the case and there is a risk that the financially weaker party will be prejudiced if the relationship comes to an end.

“The Cohabitation Rights Bill is already in the Parliamentary process and proposes some protection for cohabitants but is only one small step in providing protection for cohabiting couples and families. It is only a private members bill and, without government backing and allocated parliamentary time, will not realistically become law.”

Legally binding pre-nuptial agreements

“The number of couples entering into pre-nuptial agreements has increased significantly over the past few years.

“These agreements aren’t automatically binding. Case law, following public sentiment, largely supports a marital agreement being upheld, if properly entered into and if not ‘unfair’ to the other party, but the court still exercises its discretion.