Facing family challenges during lockdown

Claire Reid

Over the course of the last fortnight, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has begun the process of relaxing some of the measures put in place in late March to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Although the restrictions have resulted in acute economic pressures, one of the country’s leading law firms has reported how they have also increased pressures in households across the North West region.

Claire Reid, a Partner at Hall Brown Family Law, has described how the 10 weeks of lockdown so far have particularly had important consequences for some couples whose relationships were already under strain.

Have you had many new enquiries about couples wanting to end their marriages because of the pressures specifically generated by living arrangements during lockdown?

It would not really come as a surprise to find that domestic tensions have risen as a result of the restrictions. However, myself and my colleagues have found that the difficulties being reported by clients are not necessarily new.

Many spouses are seeing problems which may have existed for some time magnified by the economic pressures and having to spend an intense period of time together.

Have individuals needing to speak to a family lawyer been able to do so during lockdown?

Absolutely. We have been able to work remotely and conduct meetings by telephone, Skype or Zoom. We have even taken part in a number of court hearings using the same methods, although priority has been given to the more urgent cases, such as those involving children, so some less pressing matters have faced delay.

Nevertheless, it has still been possible to submit divorce petitions and applications for various child arrangement orders online.

What options do husbands and wives who want to split up have when there are still restrictions as to their movements in place?

Many couples actually reverse initial thoughts about divorce after giving it some thought – something which we always recommend to people who come to us for advice. We have seen spouses able to have counselling by ‘phone or video link to see if their relationship is definitively broken.

Even those who conclude that they don’t have a future together have been able to find a way to live under the same roof in the knowledge that the current situation is temporary and when the housing market becomes more operational, they can find somewhere else to stay.

In the short-term, many letting agencies have stayed open and able to help source alternative accommodation.

What effect has the pandemic had on the valuation of marital assets, such as property, pensions and even businesses?

The economic impact of the lockdown have been considerable and very wide-ranging. Many couples who had secured valuations on family homes, companies and personal financial portfolios, including shares and pensions, will almost certainly not be able to rely on those valuations going forward.

All of those figures will need to be reviewed very carefully. That means speaking to family lawyers and the professionals who had made the valuations as well as speaking to partners and trying to negotiate an arrangement which is mutually acceptable.

Given that the economic situation is likely to remain very fluid for some time, it may take even longer than normal to resolve the various financial aspects of divorce.

What if former spouses had already agreed the terms of a settlement before lockdown?

It is quite likely that some or all of the valuations on which a settlement was based have now changed. That means men and women involved should speak as soon as they can to a family lawyer to explore the possibilty of whether they might vary or even set aside the terms of a settlement if they’re experiencing financial difficulties.

That’s true not only in the cases of people who agreed what are known as ‘lump sum’ divorces, but those who have to pay child or spousal maintenance. In the case of the former, the Child Maintenance Service (CMS) expect people to stick to previously determined amounts unless there’s a substantial change in income.

Even though the CMS is prioritising cases involving redundancy above those of people who’ve been furloughed, there’s still a need to keep them notified about all changes in circumstance.

Someone ordered to pay spousal maintenance should, likewise, continue to pay, even if they have been placed on furlough and their income is being topped up by an employer.

Someone who has experienced a large drop in income may need to apply for maintenance terms to be revised, although any such variation must be formally recorded to avoid being pursued for arrears at some later date.

Have petitions or applications made before lockdown been dealt with?

Unless they involve very urgent issues, such as domestic violence or child abduction, many cases have been subject to the substantial backlog experienced by the courts.

The Ministry of Justice has done its best to minimise the disruption to the legal system, but there have been unavoidable delays. Applications will be dealt with, but those men and women involved will understandably need to be patient.

How great has the impact of lockdown been on your normal working practices?

Given that Hall Brown prides itself on its flexible approach to what we do, the effect has not been too great. Having said that, we are subject to advice by judges which has had to change repeatedly to meet these exceptional and unprecedented circumstances.

Family law is certainly not prescriptive. Decisions are made on the specifics of individual cases, therefore, it is essential that couples take advice before taking any important step.

There are things which people can do themselves, however. The last two months have increased the number of men and women deciding to make or review a Will together with a Lasting Power of Attorney document, as well as checking life insurance policies and death in service pension provisions.