New Funding to Help Survivors of Domestic Violence

Services providing support for survivors of domestic abuse have received a boost with the news that the Government is to make around £19 million of new funding available.

Councils working in partnership with charities and other organisations will be able to bid for a share of funding to support survivors of domestic abuse.

This will be available for a wide range of services to help survivors rebuild their lives; including the provision of refuge beds, education, and employment and life skills training.

This funding builds on £20 million allocated in 2016 to 2018 which has helped provide more than 2,200 new bed spaces in refuges and other specialist accommodation, supporting more than 19,000 survivors with a safe space to rebuild their lives.

The Government has also published updated guidelines for councils, created in partnership with experts, to help ensure their response to domestic abuse is as collaborative, robust and effective as it can be, meeting the needs of diverse communities including BAME, disabled and LGBT victims.

“The release of the next round of funding for refuges and other accommodation for women escaping domestic abuse is desperately needed, and much welcomed,” commented Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid. “Our national network of refuges not only save lives but transform them, helping women and their children to rebuild their lives.”

“Together we need to ensure that there is a sustainable, long-term funding solution for all domestic abuse services, including lifesaving refuges,” she added. “Only then can we guarantee that every survivor and her children can get the support they need to build a life free from domestic abuse.”

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Analysis Reveals Risk Factors for Partner Abuse

A recent publication from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has revealed which groups of women are most at risk of experiencing partner abuse.

Key Findings

Key findings from the analysis, which relates to women in England and Wales, include:

  • Young women were more likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months than older women.
  • Women who had a long-term illness or disability were more than twice as likely to have experienced some form of partner abuse (12.4%) in the last 12 months than women who did not (5.1%).
  • Bisexual women were nearly twice as likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months than heterosexual women (10.9% compared with 6.0%).
  • Women who identified with Mixed/Multiple ethnicities were more likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months (10.1%) than any other ethnic group.
  • Women living in households with an income of less than £10,000 were more than four times as likely (14.3%) to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months than women living in households with an income of £50,000 or more (3.3%).
  • Women living in social housing (11.1%) were nearly three times as likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months than women who were owner occupiers (4.1%).

Ending Violence Against Women

“Today’s analysis gives insight into the characteristics of women and girls who are more likely to experience partner abuse,” said an ONS spokesperson. “It also tells us about the types of households they live in. This can help to inform policies and services aimed at ending violence against women and girls – one of the key targets in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

Women’s Aid Response

Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid issued a statement in response to the publication.

“From our work with survivors, we know that women of all ages are living with domestic abuse – regardless of whether they have just embarked on their first relationship or have been married for decades,” commented Sian Hawkins, Head of Campaigns and Public Affairs. “We also know that younger women experience abuse at shockingly high rates but are less likely to access vital support services. We want to change this.”

“Today’s ONS statistics show that a higher proportion of younger women between the ages of 16-24 experienced domestic abuse in the last year than women aged 45-59,” she said. “Our culture often portrays controlling behaviour as a sign of being desired or loved when in fact coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic abuse. This can make it more difficult for younger women, who may be entering into their first relationship, to identify abusive behaviours or question them, and as a result they may not speak out about the abuse or know that domestic abuse services can help them.”

“That’s why we are calling on the government to use the Domestic Abuse Bill to break down the barriers facing young women in disclosing abuse and accessing help to ensure that every survivor gets the support she needs, when she needs it,” she added.

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Councils Urged to Provide Sufficient Support to Special Guardians

A new report from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has called on councils to do more to ensure they are providing the appropriate level of support and guidance to children subject to Special Guardianship Orders and their carers.

The Ombudsman defines Special Guardians as people who look after children who are not their own, following a court order. This order is known as a Special Guardianship Order (SGO), which gives carers greater rights to make decisions on behalf of the children they are looking after and also provides children with a greater degree of permanence.

According to Government figures, the number of SGOs made in 2015 reached over 5,300, which is an increase of 81% compared to 2011.

“Special Guardianship Orders can offer a stable and secure home life for some of the most vulnerable children in our society; children for whom, for whatever reason, it is not possible to live with their birth parents,” explained Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King.

“Many of these guardians are also family members, and take on their role willingly, but with little notice and without understanding the consequences,” he said. “It is imperative, therefore, that these children and their guardians get the right support available to them – and without having to fight the system to get what they are entitled to.”

“Many of the investigations detailed in the report have resulted in councils taking positive steps to improve their practices,” he added. “I would encourage all councils that have a duty to support people contemplating becoming special guardians to learn from this report and ensure their policies and procedures include the proper provisions for families.”

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Controversial Divorce Case Reaches Supreme Court

The highly publicised contested-divorce case, Owens v Owens, has now been heard by the UK’s Supreme Court.

Facts of the Case

The English case concerns Tini and Hugh Owens, who married in 1978 and separated in February 2015.

In May 2015 Mrs Owens filed for divorce, claiming that their marriage had irretrievably broken down – a necessary requirement for divorce in England and Wales. There are five possible reasons that can be given for this breakdown:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable Behaviour
  • Desertion
  • Separation for over two years, if both partners agree
  • Separation for at least five years, even if one partner disagrees

Mrs Owen claimed that their marriage had irretrievably broken down as a result of her husband’s behaviour, which she said was unreasonable enough to mean she could not reasonably be expected to live with him within the meaning of s 1(2)(b) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. She gave examples of his behaviour in support of her claim, including occasions where the husband was alleged to have made disparaging or hurtful remarks to her in front of third parties.

However, Mr Owen contested the divorce, claiming that their marriage had not broken down irretrievably. He argued that the examples given of his behaviour given by Mrs Owen were not sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Act.

The judge hearing the case at the Court of Appeal agreed with Mr Owen and dismissed the petition. Mrs Owens appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, which heard the case on 17th May. We await their ruling with great interest.

Calls for No-Fault Divorce

The case has led to renewed calls for the introduction of no-fault in divorce in England and Wales. Campaigners say the current system, which relies on one spouse proving unreasonable behaviour on the part of the other, creates unnecessary conflict and bad feeling amongst divorcing couples.

Family law organisation, Resolution, which has long campaigned for no-fault divorce, has been given permission to intervene in the case on Mrs Owen’s behalf, arguing that the current law can be applied in a way that allows her the divorce she is seeking. However, the organisation claims that irrespective of the outcome in the Supreme Court, the law should be changed to avoid such cases coming before the courts in the future.

Increased Conflict and Confrontation

It recently conducted a survey amongst family lawyers, which found that 90% agreed the current law makes it harder for them to reduce conflict and confrontation between clients and their ex-partners.

The survey also found:

  • 67% said the current law makes it harder for separated parents to reach an amicable agreement over arrangements for children.
  • 80% believe the introduction of no-fault divorce would make it more likely for separated couples to reach an agreement out of court.
  • 60% have experienced lawyers drafting more aggressive petitions than before the Court of Appeal judgment in Owens v Owens.

Resolution highlights that in 2016, more than half of all divorce petitions were submitted on the basis of adultery or behaviour – meaning over 60,000 people apportioned blame to their ex-partner for the relationship breaking down.

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Digital Divorce Application Process Rolled Out

A fully digital divorce application process has now been rolled out across England and Wales from 1st May 2018.

The online service offers prompts and guidance to assist people in completing their application, and uses clear, non-technical language. The whole process can be completed online, including payment and uploading supporting evidence.

During the testing phase conducted before the full roll out, more than 1,000 petitions were issued through the new system, with 91% of people saying they were satisfied with the service.

Court staff currently spend 13,000 hours dealing with complex paper divorce forms, but this simpler and less technical online service has already contributed to a 95% drop in the number of applications being returned because of mistakes, when compared with paper forms. This means only 0.6% of forms have been rejected since January.

“Allowing divorce applications to be made online will help make sure we are best supporting people going through an often difficult and painful time,” commented Justice Minister Lucy Frazer.

“More people will have the option of moving from paper-based processes to online systems which will cut waste, speed up services which can be safely expedited, and otherwise better fit with modern day life,” she added.

These changes are part of £1 billion programme to transform the court system – making it quicker, more accessible and easier to use for all. Other examples of the Government’s court reforms include:

  • A digital system which makes it quicker and easier for people to claim money owed, resolve disputes out of court and access mediation.
  • A new service which allows people to submit their tax appeals online – drastically cutting the number of applications being returned as incomplete or inaccurate.

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Court of Justice Considers Grandmother’s Right of Access to Grandchild

An Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the European Union has given his opinion in a case concerning the rights of grandparents to see their grandchildren.

The case in question concerned a grandmother, Ms Valcheva, who is a Bulgarian national. Her grandson was born in 2002, and since his parents’ divorce he has been habitually resident in Greece, where he lives with his father who is a Greek national.

Grandmother Seeks Access to Grandson

Ms Valcheva wishes to maintain a relationship with her grandson and sought to obtain rights of access. However, she was unsuccessful in her attempts to establish quality contact with her grandson and did not receive any support from the Greek authorities. She therefore applied to the Bulgarian courts for a determination of arrangements for her to exercise rights of access to her grandson. The access she requested consisted of seeing her grandson one weekend each month and that he come and stay with her at her home in Bulgaria for two or three weeks during his holidays.

National Courts Dismiss Case

Her application was dismissed by the Bulgarian courts of first instance and also the appeal court on the basis of lack of jurisdiction on the ground that an EU Regulation (Brussels IIa Regulation) provides for the jurisdiction of the courts of the Member State in which the child has his habitual residence i.e. Greece.

Ms Valcheva then took her case to Bulgaria’s Supreme Court, which has taken the view that in order to determine which country’s court has jurisdiction, it is essential to ascertain whether or not the Brussels IIa Regulation applies to the rights of access of grandparents. The case was referred to the Court of Justice for a ruling on this question.

Advocate General Gives Opinion

Advocate General Szpunar has now given his opinion on the matter. He notes that his analysis has been guided by the principle that the best interests of the child come first, which is of fundamental importance under the Brussels IIa Regulation.

He also notes that if applications for rights of access by persons other than parents are to be excluded from the scope of the Brussels IIa Regulation, jurisdiction in respect of such applications would be determined by non-harmonised national rules. The risk of bringing the dispute before a court the child has no close link to, and the likelihood of parallel proceedings and irreconcilable decisions would increase, contrary to the purpose of the Brussels IIa Regulation, which aims to lay down uniform rules of jurisdiction in accordance with the principle of proximity in judicial proceedings.

The Advocate General also looked at relevant international instruments such as the 1996 Hague Convention, noting that they adopt a broad concept of rights of access, thus supporting the integration of ties between near relatives, which can play a considerable part in family life.

He concluded that the concept of rights of access includes persons other than parents, since those persons have family ties to the child based on law or on fact.

He has therefore proposed the Court of Justice rules that in matters of parental responsibility rights of access include the rights of access of grandparents

It is important to note that the Advocate General’s Opinion is not binding on the Court of Justice. It is the role of the Advocates General to propose to the Court, in complete independence, a legal solution to the cases for which they are responsible. The Judges of the Court will deliberate the case and give their judgment at a later date.

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Appeal Judges Rule Against Life-Long Maintenance Payments

In what has been described as a ‘landmark decision’, judges at the Appeal Court in London have upheld a man’s appeal against the requirement to pay life-long maintenance to his ex-wife, reports the Daily Mail.

Kim and William Waggott separated in 2012 after 21 years of marriage, and had one child together. At a divorce hearing in 2014, Mrs Waggott was awarded around £10 million in cash and assets plus annual maintenance payments from her ex-husband of £175,000, which were to be payable for life.

She was not happy with this settlement and subsequently went back to court to try and get her annual payments increased by £23,000.

However, her husband lodged an appeal against the original decision, claiming that the court had been wrong to award his ex-wife life-long payments. He argued that this meant there was no financial motivation for her to ever return to work, whereas he would have to continue to work hard in a demanding job.

The Appeal Court judges have now found in Mr Waggott’s favour, ruling that the annual maintenance payments should only be paid for three more years so as to allow Mr Waggott to achieve a ‘clean break’ from his former wife.

Lord Justice Moylan said that if Mrs Waggott invested part of her settlement she should be able to live off the interest, and if this didn’t provide sufficient income she was capable of finding employment and earning additional income.

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Couples in Dispute over Divorce Jurisdictions

When couples who live an international life-style take the decision to separate, the question of which county’s court system should hear their divorce can sometimes become hotly contested.

Less Wealthy Spouses Favour English Courts

Couples who own properties in several different countries will sometimes be able to choose which of these countries they would like to file for divorce in, however couples won’t always be in agreement over this decision, particularly where there is a significant difference in wealth between the parties.

When it comes to financial settlements on divorce, the family law system in England is generally seen to allow for more generous settlements and therefore is often the divorce destination of choice for the less wealthy spouse. At the same time, and for obvious reasons, the spouse with comparatively more assets is usually keen to avoid the English courts.

Couple Argues over English and Scottish Jurisdictions

One wealthy couple currently in dispute over jurisdictions is Charles and Emma Villiers, reports the Daily Mail.

They lived in Scotland for most of their married life, but after the relationship broke down Mrs Villiers moved to London. In 2014 Mr Villiers, who is thought to have assets amounting to around £5 million, filed for divorce in Scotland, but several months later Mrs Villiers submitted an application for financial maintenance in England, seeking £10,000 month.

In 2016 a court ruling found that because Mrs Villiers was now ‘habitually resident’ in England, she had the right to have her settlement application heard in the English courts. She was awarded £5,500 a month as an interim measure until a full hearing on her settlement entitlement could be heard.

Mr Villiers has now challenged that decision, claiming that it should be up to the Scottish courts to decide on the financial settlement, as that is where the divorce has been filed.

However, Mrs Villiers has argued that under EU law the question of maintenance is separate from the divorce itself, and doesn’t have to be settled under the same jurisdiction. She maintains that there is therefore no reason why her financial settlement claim can’t be settled in England, even though the divorce itself is being processed in Scotland.

Husband Challenges Divorce Decision

A second couple currently in dispute over whether England is the appropriate jurisdiction to hear their divorce is Una Kelly and John Pyres, reports the Evening Standard.

The couple owns properties in London, Brussels and Italy. Ms Kelly was apparently born in England but most of her childhood was spent in Ireland. Mr Pyres was born in India, and also lived briefly in England, but now considers Italy to be his true home. The couple most recently lived together in Bosnia, which is where Mr Pyres thinks their divorce should be heard. However, Ms Kelly wants the divorce to be heard in England, and has been given permission by the courts to proceed with her application.

Mr Pyres has challenged this decision, claiming that his wife never saw England as her permanent home. However, Ms Kelly told the Appeal Court in support of her claim that she views their property in London as her home and that she plans to live in England when she retires.

We await the outcome of both these cases with interest.

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Statistics Reveal Fall in Marriage Numbers

The Office for National Statistics has published its Marriages in England and Wales: 2015 bulletin, which gives details on the number of marriages that took place in England and Wales analysed by age, sex, previous marital status and civil or religious ceremony.

Key statistics revealed in the report include:

  • There were 239,020 marriages between opposite-sex couples in 2015, a decrease of 3.4% from 2014 when there 247,372 marriages, and 0.8% lower than in 2013.
  • Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples in 2015 were the lowest on record, with 21.7 marriages per thousand unmarried men and 19.8 marriages per thousand unmarried women.
  • Compared with 2005, marriage rates for opposite-sex couples marrying in 2015 were lower at all ages, except for men aged 65 and over and women aged 55 and over, where marriage rates increased.
  • In 2015 there were 6,493 marriages between same-sex couples, 56% were between female couples; a further 9,156 same-sex couples converted their civil partnership into a marriage.
  • In 2015, civil ceremonies among opposite-sex couples decreased by 1.6%, while religious ceremonies decreased by 8.0% compared with 2014.
  • In 2015, of all individuals marrying a same-sex partner, 85% were forming their first legally recognised partnership compared with 76% for opposite-sex couples.

“Marriage rates for opposite-sex couples are now at their lowest level on record following a gradual long-term decline since the early 1970s,” commented an ONS spokesperson. “The number of marriages between opposite-sex couples decreased by 3.4% in 2015, compared with 2014.”

“Despite this overall decline, marriages at older ages rose; the number of weddings increased for men aged 50 and over and women aged 35 to 39 years and 45 and over,” she said. “This is the first full year for which marriages were available for same-sex couples and they accounted for 2.6% of all marriages.”

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Supreme Court Rules on Parental Abduction Case

Cases where children are taken out of the country by one parent without the consent of the other can be highly complex.

One such case, which involved the removal of two children from Australia to the UK by their mother, recently found its way to the Supreme Court, which has now published its decision on the matter.

Facts of the Case

The case concerned a married couple who lived together in Australia with their two children until 2015. By the end of 2014 the marriage was apparently in trouble, and the mother, who holds British citizenship, wanted to make a trip to England with the children before returning to work from maternity leave. The father agreed to an eight-week stay, however the mother and the children have remained in England since they arrived in May 2015.

Discussions between the mother and father apparently resulted in the father agreeing to an extension of the eight week visit up to a year and at that point the mother gave notice to her employer and looked for work in England.

In September 2015, the mother enrolled the older child at a local pre-school. In November 2015, without telling the father, she applied for British citizenship for both children who had entered England on six-month visitor visas. Her solicitors wrote a letter to the immigration authorities on her behalf indicating that she and the children could not return to Australia for fear of domestic abuse.

In continuing correspondence, the father pressed the mother on the children’s expected date of return. The mother indicated that she did not know what her plans were but made clear that she would not be returning in May 2016. In June 2016, she expressed her intention to remain in the UK.

Father Brings Legal Action

The father made an application in the High Court under the Convention of 25 October 1980 on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (the “Abduction Convention”).

One issue the court had to decide was at what point did the mother decide not to return to Australia. The mother’s own case was that by April 2016 she had felt she and the children would not be returning. The arguments before the Court meant that, on any view, there was a decision not to return to Australia before the expiry of the agreed year.

The High Court found in the mother’s favour, ruling that the children were habitually resident in England and Wales by the end of June 2016 so that mandatory summary return was unavailable under the Abduction Convention. But it accepted the mother’s evidence that she did not have the intention, in November 2015, or before April 2016, not to return to Australia.

Appeal to Supreme Court

The father successfully appealed this decision in the Court of Appeal, however the mother brought an appeal to the Supreme Court, which had two main issues to consider:

  • what is the effect on an application under the Abduction Convention if a child has become habitually resident in the destination state before the act relied on as a wrongful removal or retention occurs?;
  • and if a child has been removed from their home state by agreement with the left-behind parent for a limited period can there be a wrongful retention before the agreed period of absence expires (so-called “repudiatory retention”)?

The Supreme Court found in favour of the mother and has allowed her appeal. At the same time, it dismissed a cross appeal by the father on the issue of habitual residence.

With regards to the first of the issues set out above, the judgment explains that:

“The Abduction Convention cannot be invoked if by the time of the alleged wrongful act, whether by removal or retention, the child is habitually resident in the state where the request for return is lodged. In such a case, that state has primary jurisdiction to decide on the merits, based on the child’s habitual residence, and there is no room for a mandatory summary decision.”

On the second issue, the judges said that:

“On the present facts there could not have been a wrongful retention in April 2016 as the mother’s internal thinking could not by itself amount to such. If she had such an intention in November 2015, the application to the immigration authorities could have amounted to a repudiatory retention. But it was open to the judge to believe the mother’s evidence that she did not possess this intention in November. There is no basis in law for criticising the judge’s decision as to habitual residence.”

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