Will 2021 see a surge in demand for family legal services?

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Will 2021 see a surge in demand for family legal services?

Family Law experts discuss whether the industry will see a surge in demand for legal services in 2021 following the latest peak in divorce rates in England and Wales. 

The latest divorce rate figures released by Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal the highest recorded figure for 5 years, standing at more than 100,000 divorces in 2019 – an increase of 18.4% from 2018, with 107,599 opposite-sex couples and 822 same-sex couples divorcing last year.

This has pushed the rate of divorces from 7.5 per 1,000 in 2018 to 8.9 in 2019, however some of the growth can be attributed to divorce centres processing a backlog of casework from 2018. While there has been widespread reporting of an increase in family law enquiries during the coronavirus lockdown, the ONS figures are yet to assess its impact on the number of divorces in 2020.

The most common reason cited on the divorce petition for opposite-sex couples was that of unreasonable behaviour, with 49% of wives and 35% of husbands divorcing on these grounds. Similarly, it was also the most common reason for divorce among same-sex couples with 63% of divorces among women and 70% of divorces among men.

Today’s Family Lawyer asked family law experts and organisations whether the impact of rising divorce rates and change in legislation, such as ‘no fault’ divorces on the horizon and the move towards online systems, will cause a surge in demand for legal advice in 2021?

Mena Ruparel, the Co-Chair of the Law Society’s Family Law Committee said:

“The latest ONS statistics show an 18.4% increase in divorce rates in 2019. This rise in divorce rates is partly due to backlogs in the divorce system in 2018 which lead to a drop for that period.

“On balance, these fluctuations mean the rate of divorce has been fairly static over the last two years – putting aside previous administrative issues at the divorce centres.

“The online divorce portal has been in development for some years and there is no evidence to suggest that the ease with which people can access the portal has led to any increase in the divorce rate. Although people can choose to deal with their divorce themselves online, it is always sensible to take advice about matters such as the finances and children where appropriate

“Likewise, the introduction of no fault divorce isn’t likely to lead to more couples deciding to get divorced.

“Under the current system, to start a divorce immediately, one party has to blame the other, for example by accusing them of adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion. This creates unnecessary hostility between divorcing spouses by forcing them to apportion blame, which frequently has very negative effects on both the adults and children involved.

“The introduction of no fault divorce will simply mean that those couples who choose to get divorced can cut the conflict from the process and separate with dignity.”

Linda Hunter, head of family law at Rowlinsons Solicitors, associate solicitor, accredited family mediator and qualified collaborative lawyer commented. She said:

“2020 has been a challenging year for many, and this will undoubtedly have an impact on personal relationships in the near future. It is often the case that when couples face personal and financial challenges, it can have an impact on their relationship and can unfortunately lead in some cases to relationship breakdowns. Whilst it is very much hoped that 2021 will bring some relief from the current restrictions, stresses and uncertainty, it is anticipated that the effects of this year will be felt for a long time yet to come. Sadly, it seems likely that we will see a rise in divorce rates in 2021, and likely a rise in couples needing family law support as well. With so much financial uncertainty, more and more people will no doubt be seeking support from legal advisors to help navigate the complex situations they may find themselves in. It will be more important than ever for separating couples to try and find solutions to their disputes, to reduce hostility, litigation and legal costs. Whilst an increase in demand for legal advise is anticipated, so too will be the increased demand for alternative dispute resolutions, such as mediation and Collaborative Law.”

Juliet Harvey, National Chair of Resolution said:

“We have always anticipated that divorce figures may briefly or temporarily rise once no-fault divorce is introduced, as married couples will no longer be required to wait a minimum of two years if they do not want to apportion blame or cite adultery, as is the case now. This has also been the experience in other countries who have brought in similar ‘no fault’ reforms.

“However it’s important to remember that the statistics elsewhere show this to be a short-term ‘blip’ which corrects itself over time – there is no evidence that reforming the way in which people can get divorced makes it any more likely that they will divorce. This is a point Resolution made to MPs and Ministers throughout our campaign for no fault divorce, and we were pleased to see this reflected in the Government’s own statements on the matter in response to those who suggested divorce would rise as a result of this important reform.”

Rachel Roberts, Regional Director at Stowe Family Law further commented. She said:

“In my view, we are unlikely to see a huge surge in demand for legal advice owing to the change in legislation. It’s important to realise that the campaign for a no fault divorce was about allowing people to divorce with more dignity and less conflict, rather than about it just being easier. Whilst the present system is unnecessarily archaic, my experience is that it does not deter clients who are ready to end their marriage from proceeding. In turn, I do not therefore think that the no fault divorce will be influential for most people in deciding to end their marriage, a decision few make lightly. In terms of the online process, if anything, my concern is that this may lead to parties choosing to divorce themselves without legal advice, and without an understanding of the financial implications.”

Beth Courtney-Walker, solicitor in family law at Jacksons Law added:

“At present reliance on ‘unreasonable behaviour’ is so prolific because it allows a petition to be filed immediately. While adultery does the same, it has strict requirements which are harder to prove, so is more often cited as unreasonable behaviour than relied upon in its own right, skewing the figures.

I don’t anticipate that upcoming changes will themselves impact on demand for legal advice, but rather the type of advice. People who would have relied on no-fault divorce have been using unreasonable behaviour as a ‘catch all’ for years, often with very mild examples listed. However, I’m sure we’ve all remembered a ridiculous argument years later and gotten angry about it all over again. No matter how mildly worded, fault based petitions risk triggering a similar feeling early in the divorce process, which can scupper amicable negotiations. I hope we will therefore see an increased demand for alternative dispute resolution and collaborative approaches as we move away from concepts of ‘fault’ or ‘blame’ (and therefore reduce the risk of inadvertently hitting any nerves).”

Lucy Haines, family Law solicitor at Amphlett Lissimore further added:

“I’m confident that the change in law to no fault divorce will make no difference to the statistics around divorce but will inflict less pain – and be less costly in legal fees.

“Family lawyers have been lobbying for ‘no fault’ divorce for decades alongside their national organisation Resolution. Our experience is that a client’s first priority is to make practical and financial arrangements for their family following the breakdown of their relationship. When co-operatively achieved this ensures the best for both parties and for their children, but it can take a considerable amount of emotional energy and much compromise in the worst of circumstances. The current divorce law then requires them to decide who is going to accept blame for the breakdown and catalogue what that person did so that their hard won agreement can be made final. This simply rekindles all the hurt and can only have negative consequences.

“By removing the blame game from divorce, the law is not encouraging more people to go through the process, it is just trying to reduce the upset surrounding it. This is seen as a hugely positive step forward in Family law and I don’t believe we will see an overall increase in divorce because of it.

Charlie Bell, partner at Bortoft Bell also gave his viewpoint:

“It is perhaps artificial to look at the number of divorces in a single year in isolation. The number of divorce petitions filed each year has been on a downward trend since the early 1990s. Whilst the jump between the number of petitions filed between 2018 and 2019 is significant, it still remains around a third lower that the highest number recorded in 1993, in part due to the reducing number of couples deciding to marry.

Beginning divorce proceedings is a decision that no one takes lightly. There may be a short term increase in the number of petitions following the introduction of no fault divorce, largely arising from those who would prefer not to make allegations of unreasonable behaviour no longer needing to do so and those who incorrectly believe that they must wait two years before beginning proceedings realising that this is not the case. In the longer term I would be surprised if the introduction of no fault divorce has any meaningful impact on the number of couples divorcing.”

Olivia Stiles, associate at Kingsley Napley gave her views. She said:

“The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us all into a new normal. For some, more time spent at home with family has strengthened relationships and marriages with a genuine sharing of the childcare and household chores, whereas for others it has made the cracks that were already there ever more apparent and relationships have been forced to breaking point.

“We expect that as the public emerge from lockdown and with new year’s resolutions around the corner, people will start to look forward to their ‘post-pandemic new normal’ and planning their future. This may include moving to another part of the country or abroad, revised working commitments and in some cases, it may mean a decision to separate from their spouse or partner. As the end of the pandemic is likely still some way off, we anticipate that people will take this time, while restrictions remain in place, to consider their options, plan their futures and take legal advice.

“Despite the publicity around ‘no fault’ divorce which we hope will come into force some time in Autumn 2021, there is still an assumption by a large section of the public and the clients that consult us that it is possible to divorce based on “irreconcilable differences” (a term borrowed from the US) with neither party blaming the other. Usually when a client is consulting a divorce lawyer, they are already well-advanced in their decision-making and despite the fact that a ‘blame-free’ divorce is not possible as they had hoped, the vast majority still want to proceed rather than waiting a period of 2 years (or until Autumn 2021) to have a ‘no fault’ divorce.

“The relative ease with which individuals can now issue a divorce petition online may make the more impulsive among the public ‘push the button’ on a divorce more readily and in many instances without taking advice. This may result in an uptick of issued divorces, although it will be interesting to follow through the statistics which track the percentage of divorces issued online which actually proceed to a Decree Absolute.”

Georgia Butterworth, a solicitor in Birketts’ Family Team, said:

“Rising divorce numbers, combined with changes in legislation and a move towards online systems, will only increase the demand for specialist advice from dedicated family lawyers. The introduction of the “no-fault” divorce next autumn, under which parties will only have to state that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, is likely to compound this need as couples navigate uncharted territory in marriage law.

These figures are a stark reminder that divorce is now more prevalent than ever and the ability to access good quality family law advice is invaluable.”

Toni Ryder-McMullin

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