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    2023 In Review – Reflections on the Year in Family Law

    2023: A Year in Review
    Julian Hawkhead, Managing Partner, Reflects on the Year
    It has become something of a tradition for me to write a note as we draw towards the end of the year to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months. Doesn’t the time fly by? This year I’m delighted to be joined by a few colleagues around the firm who have put down some thoughts on what has stood out for them over the course of 2023.
    At Stowe, it has been quite a year again! I’m trying to find some clever way of linking “Stowe” and “grow” together but have failed but yet again we have continued to cement our place as the most dominant family law practice in the country. We saw our colleague numbers increase to over 360 with a total of 178 lawyers serving 88 locations around the country. Yes, that’s right, we have 88 office locations, adding 22 new locations including those from Watson Thomas and Crisp & Co. this year. It has been an absolute pleasure to get to know our new colleagues from those two firms, to learn about their ways of working and what they have done to make themselves successful to continue improve our own Stowe Way of Working.
    Our client numbers also increased by 25% and by early December we had over 4,000 progressing matters underway as we continue to strive to support more and more people.
    Joanna Newton on The Rise of the Legal Age of Marriage
    In February this year, the legal age of marriage rose to 18. This has meant that 16- and 17-year-olds who were previously allowed to marry with parental consent are no longer allowed to marry or enter a civil partnership in England and Wales.
    As of 27th February, it is now a criminal offence to arrange a marriage for under 18-year-olds under any circumstances. The offence is now punishable by 7 years in prison.
    The idea behind this new law is to better protect children from being forced into underage marriages and protect them from abuse and coercion. The change is to crack down on forced marriages which can cause lasting psychological, and sometimes physical, damage on a child. It is also part of the government’s continuing commitment to tackling violence against women and girls.
    Prior to the Marriage and Civil Partnerships (Minimum Age) Act 2023, the law had been unchanged since 1949 and had legitimised child marriage with children aged 16 and 17 permitted to marry with their parents’ consent.
    The mechanism of parental consent which existed under that law, whilst meant to be a safeguard, has, in some cases, proved to be a vehicle for parental abuse.
    This change is a welcome relief and over the coming years we will hopefully see it having a considerable impact reducing the number of forced marriages and violence against girls in particular.
    Gemma Davison on Changes to Fertility Legislation
    Earlier this year, the government announced that there would be a change to fertility law which aims to reduce the discrimination that female same-sex couples face when they are looking to conceive via reciprocal IVF (where one woman provides her egg and the other carries the child). It will also encompass a change for same-sex couples where one or both partners have HIV but the viral load is undetectable.
    Female same-sex couples will no longer be required to have an additional screening for infectious diseases (including rubella, hepatitis B and C) which will remove this extra barrier not faced by heterosexual couples and reduce costs by up to £1000.
    For same-sex couples with undetectable HIV viral loads, the change in legislation will mean that the couple will have access to IVF treatment, including known sperm or egg cell donation to friends or relatives.
    These changes will hopefully work to reduce the inequality that exists between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples regarding fertility options and treatment. However, there is still a way to go.
    In August 2022 as part of the Women’s Health Strategy, the government committed to removing all financial barriers for same-sex couples that are not faced by heterosexual couples. We are still awaiting this change. I hope to see more progress in reducing discrimination in the fertility space and more support of this method of parenthood in 2024.
    Megan Brookfield on ‘Love bombing’ being Recognised as a Sign of Abuse by CPS
    In April this year, the Crown Prosecution Service updated their guidance on controlling and coercive behaviour to include the term ‘love bombing’. The guidance now advises prosecutors on the range of tactics perpetrators of abuse can use against their victim and discusses love bombing and what this entails. Love bombing is a phrase used to describe a scenario whereby the abuser will periodically carry out over-the-top loving acts in between other behaviour to confuse and control their victim. It is most commonly seen in the early stages of a relationship.
    The update is a positive step. It has highlighted the diverse ways in which perpetrators can exact control of their victim. Furthermore, it provides a degree of clarity on the role of love bombing and how it is a coercive tactic. It also gives family lawyers a legal framework with which to support clients and indeed when obtaining protective orders from the family court.
    There are still numerous challenges to face when proving coercive control. The updates in legal framework have certainly improved this, but it is clear that more work needs to be done to help and support survivors and their families, particularly for those seeking to leave their abusive relationship.
    Ashley Le Core on Child Arrangements in International Divorces
    Most of us will have seen something about the divorce of Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner earlier this year. Their divorce raised some very interesting points in the family law space, including which jurisdiction should accept the divorce proceedings and associated financial remedy proceedings. This is particularly important to consider, as different jurisdictions will provide two differing ways of handling assets, which could favour one party over the other.
    However, most of the media drama of the divorce has been specifically about child arrangements, raising the issue of who gets the kids in international divorces, as Turner is British and Jonas is American. From media reports, it appeared that they had planned to settle their two young daughters in England. Initial divorce proceedings, however, saw some issues on this front, including accusations of child abduction.
    Unlike many divorces, these parents are of course very wealthy and therefore the reality is that wherever the determination is made that the children shall primarily reside, the other parent should be more than able to purchase an appropriate property in that country and therefore, the impact on the children will be drastically reduced. This is of course not available to every party in such cases.
    No absolute certain details are known about the long-term arrangements in relation to this divorce at this stage, but in the interim, the girls will travel between the UK and the US. In international divorces generally, it is unlikely the court would expect children to be travelling between countries on a regular basis, especially if they are of school age. In these cases, the primary focus has to be their schooling.  The onus would therefore be on one of the parents to do more of the travelling and to have a base in the relevant jurisdiction. The children then spend more quality time with their parents over longer periods such as school holidays.
    The Jonas/Turner divorce has been an interesting study in the various complex aspects involved in international and multi-jurisdictional divorces and has particularly drawn attention to what happens to children in such circumstances.
    A Final Sign Off
    There is little I can add to what has been said so eloquently above and a huge thanks to them for taking the time to share their thoughts. Family law is always evolving whether that is to reflect the changing values of our society, to adapt to the political or economic climate or to anticipate what factors such as new (and what can seem scary) technology. As a leadership team we are constantly surveying the horizon to see what might be coming up, whether that is a possible change of government or some new AI innovation. Whatever happens I do believe that 2024 will be great and exciting year.
    Wishing you and your families a safe, restful and joyous festive season.
    Julian, and all at Stowe Family Law. More

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    How to manage the Cost-of-Christmas Crisis

    It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
    But it’s also one of the most expensive.
    The Cost of Christmas Crisis, as it has been coined, is taking its toll again this year. Recent research from easymoney has revealed that people are cutting down on their Christmas spending this year, as the cost-of-living crisis has an ongoing impact. 59% of us are looking to make cuts this year, with 55% of respondents stating that whilst they usually have an extra savings pot put aside for Christmas, they have saved less than planned.
    Financial Planner Jodie Phelps has put together some top tips on how to manage your money in the Cost of Christmas Crisis when the purse strings are tighter than ever.

    Be aware of the potential for emotional spending during the holidays. Stay mindful of your emotions and instead of using retail therapy as a coping mechanism write a list of other things you enjoy doing so when you feel yourself about to spend do the other things on your list instead (eg. take a bath, go for a run, call a friend)
    BUT, recognise the emotional challenges that may arise during the holidays and prioritise self-care; allocate budget for activities that bring you joy and contribute to your well-being
    Develop a budget that reflects your changed financial circumstances and keep track of your spending
    Create a list of people you want to buy gifts for and allocate a specific amount for each person
    Consider creative and thoughtful gifts that don’t necessarily have to be expensive (eg. photo collages, scrap books, experiences). Remember, the holidays are about spending time with loved ones and creating meaningful memories, not just about the gifts.
    If you have a large family or friend group, consider setting limits on the amount spent on gifts or participating in a Secret Santa
    Plan your holiday meals in advance and create a shopping list. This can help you avoid last-minute, impulse food purchases/takeaways
    Be mindful of impulse purchases, especially when faced with holiday sales and promotions
    Look for discounts, compare prices, and consider using cashback or price-tracking tools to find the best deals
    After the holidays, review your spending and assess what worked well and what didn’t. Use this information to plan for the next holiday season.
    Make a note of your Christmas pay date when budgeting, as it’s usually earlier in December. Plan for the long stretch between Christmas pay day and January pay day
    Start saving a monthly amount for next Christmas so that next year you have money allocated for you to enjoy Christmas.

    You can find out more about Jodie on her LinkedIn.
    Relationship Tensions
    Financial tensions are a huge driver in divorce enquiries, and in a survey that we conducted, 60% of respondents said that the crisis was negatively affecting their relationship.
    If you do find that tensions around money build between you and your partner around this time of year, here are some suggestions on how to safeguard your relationship at Christmas. It’s important to remember that Christmas does not cause divorce and relationship breakdown. However, it can expose pre-existing issues, so getting to the root of the problem is very important.
    Stowe Solicitor Abi Jones has some top tips on reducing tensions around the festive season:

    Communicate – communication is central to healthy relationships and talking through your worries with your partner can help to alleviate pressure
    Lean on friends or family members outside of your relationship for support if needed
    Figure out where your priorities are, and if they are different to your partner’s
    If you have differing priorities, try to compromise and find where your middle ground lies
    Consider speaking to a financial planner or another professional – you can find our recommended partners in our Divorce Directory
    Try to focus on the positives, even if they seem insignificant. Small changes can make big differences over time
    Come up with interesting ways to celebrate this time of year together without the pressure of money
    Try to have some time together. Christmas can be a very busy time so spending time with each other is essential. It does not have to be big or expensive. It could be as simple as having a movie night together when the children are in bed.

    First Christmas After Separation
    Abi discusses how to manage your first Christmas after separation.
    It may be that this is your first Christmas after divorce or relationship breakdown. If this is the case, you may be more worried about money than you usually are as you may well have gone from a dual income household to single income. Not only this, but the routine and traditions of the day may also suddenly be different.

    Create experiences, rather than physical gifts
    Downsize your giving
    Use second-hand website such as Vinted or ebay
    Do Secret Santa instead of buying gifts for everyone
    Make home-made gifts
    Keep the celebrations small
    Don’t be tempted by payday loans, as this may cause more issues later on
    If you have young children, toy appeals may be available. Certain charities have toy appeals where individuals can donate toys which are then distributed between families
    Try not to compare your Christmas to others, either of your past or other people’s
    Manage the expectations of any children – let them know that change is normal but ensure they are informed of what changes, scheduling, what will be happening, where and when.

    Remember that Christmas is one day. There is a great deal of pressure for Christmas Day to be perfect, but it is just one day in the year.
    Think about how you want to spend your Christmas. Would you like to spend it with a friend, with family or even alone. This is an opportunity to make new traditions.
    Lastly, Christmas does not necessarily have to take place on 25th December. If this is the first year you do not have the children after going through a divorce or separation you can always pause your Christmas until the day after or have it before.
    Useful Links
    Financial Wellbeing with Jodie Phelps or watch on YouTube
    Surviving Christmas after Separation
    Child arrangements at Christmas
    Christmas alone with divorce and break-up coach Claire Macklin
    Budgeting solo during a cost-of-living crisis: Listen on Spotify or Watch on YouTube
    Supporting children through divorce: Listen on Spotify More

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    Changes to IVF Legislation

    Changes to Fertility Laws
    The government recently announced an upcoming change to fertility legislation which will lessen the discrimination that same-sex female couples experience in trying to conceive via reciprocal IVF.
    At the moment, female same-sex couples who are looking to have a child via the route of reciprocal IVF – meaning one woman provides her egg and the other carries the child – are required to undergo a screening for infectious diseases, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C and rubella. This can cost up to £1000.
    However, heterosexual couples going through the same process do not need to have this screening.
    The government have now announced that this will be changed, removing the additional barrier and significant extra cost only applied to female same-sex couples.
    Furthermore, changes will be brought in for same-sex couples where one or both partners have HIV, but the viral load is undetectable. In these situations, the couple will now be able to access IVF treatment, including known sperm or egg cell donation to friends or relatives.
    Stowe Partner Gemma Davison investigates these changes in more detail.
    The options for IVF treatment have been expanded with advancements in science and technology, allowing more couples to start a family through this method. However, there are still obstacles for many in accessing this treatment, particularly for same-sex couples who have additional hurdles and cost specific to themselves to overcome. This has meant ongoing inequality between heterosexual couples and same-sex couples who want to become parents.
    The government’s announcement that the cost associated with extra tests that female same-sex couples must undergo if they wish to pursue reciprocal IVF is very welcome, and long overdue.
    The changes to laws around HIV load in same-sex couples is also welcome, and will mean that, for those individuals and couples where the viral load is undetectable, access to IVF treatment will be opened.
    These changes, when they are enacted, will work to reduce the inequality that exists between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples when it comes to accessing fertility treatment. However, they will not completely remove the barriers that exist, particularly around costs, although the government has committed to removing all the financial barriers associated with IVF/fertility treatment.
    For example, at the moment, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines suggest that women under 40 should be offered three cycles of IVF funded by the NHS if:

    They have been trying to get pregnant through regular unprotected sex for two years
    Or they have not got pregnant after 12 cycles of artificial insemination

    However, if tests show that there is no chance of naturally conceiving a baby and that IVF is the only treatment likely to result in conception, the woman should be referred immediately for IVF.
    Currently, this is guidance only and not universally adopted by integrated care boards for their local area. Essentially, then, it is a postcode lottery for treatment and again, in many cases, female same-sex couples suffer inequality and huge costs if they want to conceive through IVF.
    In the Women’s Health Strategy (August 2022), the government committed to removing all financial barriers, including the requirement for female same-sex couples to pay for 6 artificial insemination cycles privately before they are eligible for NHS funded IVF. Heterosexual couples are do not have to self-fund any treatments before being eligible for NHS IVF treatment.
    Unfortunately, we are still awaiting this change. And, until the change in fertility legislation that has been announced by the government becomes law, there are still financial and practical barriers that mean same-sex couples face inequality in their journey to parenthood.
    Hopefully, we will see more change and action soon.
    Useful Links
    Fertility Network UK
    Our Child Law Solicitors
    Surrogacy in the UK: Watch on Youtube
    Surrogacy in 2 minutes: Watch on Youtube
    Embryo Storage after Divorce More

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    I’m not the ‘breadwinner’ in my divorce

    ‘Breadwinner’ is a term often thrown about with little consideration for its meaning. Traditionally, the ‘breadwinner’ in a relationship was the man as it was assumed that whilst the husband went out to work, the woman would keep house and raise the children.
    However, as society has moved on and gender roles changed, the breadwinner could be either party, or there may not be one at all. It may also be that most of the money in the relationship has come from one partner, for example from inheritance or the result of house sales or a business.
    So, what happens if you are the lower earner in your relationship? Money worries may be at the forefront of your mind when considering divorce or separation. Questions like ‘Can I afford to live by myself?’, ‘How will I afford divorce?’, ‘What will happen to the house?’ and many more may be concerning you.
    However, if you are not the ‘breadwinner’ in your relationship, you still have a safety net in divorce.
    In divorce, the Court will work from the starting point of a 50/50 split of finances and assets. A financial settlement is an agreement which will iron out financial issues and fairly separate the assets once a marriage has ended.
    In brief, a Court will look at the future income and earning capacity as well as the needs of each party going forward. If you are not the breadwinner i.e. you’re the lower earner or have no income, this will be taken into consideration in the financial settlement.
    However, it is also important to remember that spouses are not automatically entitled to an equal share of their partner’s income.
    Who pays the legal fees?
    One of the first concerns may be about who pays the legal fees in divorce. The general rule is that each partner will pay their own legal costs. The cost of divorce includes the court fee of £593, plus any solicitors’ fees should they be instructed.
    The person applying for the divorce – known as the applicant – will pay the court fee. If the application is a joint one, applicant 1 will pay the fee.
    You can find out more about who pays the legal fees in divorce here.
    Financial Disclosure and Spousal Maintenance
    Financial disclosure happens early on in divorce proceedings, usually through the completion of a Form E, and should be an honest setting out of the finances and assets of the marriage. Once the forms have been filled in, there is time for the ex-spouses and the solicitors to ask questions.
    Providing everything has been disclosed properly, an agreement can then be made on the future needs of each spouse.
    The court will then review the agreement and decide whether it is fair.
    In situations where one spouse has a much higher income than the other, there is likely to be an extended period of financial support, known as Spousal Maintenance. This can be decided between you and your partner, or the court can order the financially stronger party to pay the other a monthly income. It is expected that both parties should have a similar standard of living after the divorce that they did prior to divorce.
    Spousal maintenance is only available for couples who were married and tends to be more common for divorcees who were married for a long time.
    Spousal maintenance is available for both men and women, as it depends on who was the breadwinner in the marriage. Traditionally, men paid women spousal and/or child maintenance. However, social changes and modern-day working lives mean that either the husband or the wife in heterosexual marriages can pay maintenance costs.
    In same-sex marriages, the same applies in that either party can be the breadwinner and will therefore be required to pay the financially weaker party some form of ongoing income.
    Some couples opt for a ‘clean break’, wanting to cut all financial ties with their partner as soon as possible. To obtain a clean break, you must have a financial order approved by the Court, which also prevents your partner making any financial claims against you in the future.
    Pensions
    Pensions are often ignored in divorce proceedings, especially when the individual has sought no legal advice. However, they are one of the most important aspects in the financial part of divorces but can be complicated.
    As with divorce generally, one party is not automatically entitled to an equal share of their partner’s pension.
    Pensions are complicated, particularly so in divorce, so it is important to seek legal advice, especially if you are the lower earner.
    What’s the best option?
    What’s ‘best’ is unique to the individual and their circumstances. The most helpful thing to do is to seek advice from a family lawyer who will be able to guide you through the options and help make that decision.
    The most important thing to remember is even if you are not the breadwinner in your relationship, financial settlements and the court will take this into account.
    If you are separating, but not divorcing, because you and your partner never married, a Separation Agreement is likely to be an option for you. This document, whilst not legally binding, can be used to formally document the division of assets and finances, including pensions as well as child arrangements and other considerations. More

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    October Stowe Support roundup

    Stowe Support is a dedicated home for Stowe’s free resources designed to help inform and support anyone with family law concerns.
    With new blogs, guides, podcasts, videos and events shared each month, here’s a handy Stowe Support roundup from the past month in case you missed anything.
    Here’s your monthly roundup of Stowe Support resources in case you missed anything.
    Latest blogs from Stowe
    What is financial wellbeing?
    World Mental Health Day: wellbeing during divorce
    Labour announce commitment to cohabitation reform
    Adopting a stepchild
    World Menopause Day
    Islamic divorce in the UK
    What happens if I’m separated but not divorced?
    What to do if you think your marriage is over
    Book your free webinar place
    Cardiff Break Up Club – Surviving Christmas after separation
    Stowe Talks – How to build a happy blended family with Nichole Farrow
    Watch recent webinars
    Stowe Talks – Creating financial wellbeing following divorce or separation
    Listen to Stowe talks podcasts on Spotify
    Our next series of Stowe talks podcast will be launched soon.
    In the mean time, you can click to catch up on previous episodes and follow us!
    Stowe Support
    To explore our full range of resources dedicated to helping people with family law matters, visit Stowe Support.
    Here you’ll find a wealth of helpful guides, videos and blogs on divorce and separation, finances, children, domestic abuse, cohabitation, alternative parenting, mediation, as well as support with relationships and wellness. More

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    Adopting a stepchild

    This week is national adoption week 2023. This annual initiative is designed to raise awareness of adoption and its multi-faceted experiences.
    As a family law firm, adoption is matter we support clients with often. And with over 1.1 million children in England and Wales estimated to live in a stepfamily, we’re often asked ‘how can I adopt my stepchild?’
    When couples have children from a prior relationship that live with them, and the step-parents have full day-to-day responsibility for the care of the stepchildren, they may choose to formalise their connection with these children.
    Adopting a stepchild is one way of doing this.
    Here, Resolution accredited adoption specialist and Stowe Senior Associate, Lucy Birch, answers some stepchild adoption FAQs.
    Is there a stepchild adoption assessment?
    If you choose to adopt your stepchild, you will be assessed just as you would if going through a ‘closed adoption’ process using an adoption agency. This ensures that the decision reached is in the best interests of the child.
    The assessment includes a report prepared by a social worker that includes information about you, your partner, the child, and the other birth parent.
    This report will inform the court so they can choose whether to grant the stepchild adoption court order.
    If your application is granted, you will then share parental responsibility for the child – alongside your spouse or partner.
    When and how do you take on parental responsibility during step-parent adoption?
    Successfully obtaining an adoption order from the court under the Adoption and Children Act 2002 provides the adoptive step-parent with parental responsibility for the child.
    The legal implications of this order are far reaching. It’s worthwhile highlighting that when the stepchild adoption order is granted, parental responsibility of the other birth parent (bar the partner or spouse in step-parent adoption cases), and anyone else with parental responsibility for the child, are extinguished.
    The legal significance of the adoption order is therefore great and careful consideration and advice needs to be taken when proceeding with stepchild adoption.
    What does Parental Responsibility entail?
    There is no legal checklist for what parental responsibility entails, however the law accepts that generally, it includes the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities, and authority which by law a parent of the child has in relation to the child and their property.
    In practical terms this encompasses many things, such as decisions about schooling, medical treatment, or religious decisions for the child.
    Having parental responsibility has a significant impact from a legal perspective, including the types of legal orders that you are able to apply to the court for and whether permission is required.
    Importantly, if you have parental responsibility for a child, generally speaking you do not need permission to apply for a variety of orders under the children act.
    Can you change your stepchild’s surname?
    The application for an adoption order is called an A58 form and within the form you can specify what you would like the child’s new name to be recognised as on the adoption certificate.
    Some people decide to change the child’s surname to reflect their new family set-up.
    What are common issues of stepchild adoption safeguarding checks?
    Many of the applications I have dealt with in the UK include adoptive parents who have lived in various other countries around the world. It is worth noting at the outset that upon being matched with a social worker to work with you during the adoption process, they are likely to carry out safeguarding checks not only in the UK but also in the other countries you have lived in to ensure there are no safeguarding risks to the child.
    These checks can take a long time to conduct and conclude, particularly if the jurisdiction in question is notably inefficient at record keeping.
    I therefore always advise parents to make enquiries about stepchild adoption at the earliest opportunity if they are considering applying for an adoption order.
    Do we need the other birth parent’s consent?
    Assuming the other birth parents has parental responsibility, the question of the other birth parent’s consent is a crucial aspect of stepchild adoption proceedings and will determine whether the proceedings are what we call “non-contested” or “contested”.
    I always advise clients to make enquiries regarding the birth parents’ respective position at the earliest point, so that we can advise accordingly.
    If the other birth parent does not give consent, it is necessary to prepare a statement of facts to accompany your stepchild adoption application detailing why the court should dispense with the birth parents’ consent.
    The important things to note here are of course the attachment to the child in question, for example how often has the birth parent been in touch with that child?
    I do warn clients that there is always a possibility that the other birth parent will make a cross application for a child arrangements order once they have been served with adoption proceedings.
    If the other birth parent do not consent and a contested hearing is required, the court will hear evidence from all parties before they establish whether it’s right to remove the need for the other birth parent’s consent.
    In all instances, the fundamental priority of the family court is the child’s welfare.
    Related links
    Step-parent adoption: Insight from a family lawyer
    Who can adopt?
    Stowe Guide: Adopting a Child
    Get in touch
    If you’re looking for advice regarding adopting a stepchild, please do contact our  Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist lawyers. More

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    Economic abuse in financial remedy proceedings

    As family lawyers, many of us will have acted for clients who can tell you little to nothing about their finances. Some know nothing other than the allowance they’re given by their spouse.
    Clients in this position are often embarrassed and self-critical for finding themselves in this situation but rarely is this by choice and as professionals we must be watchful for any signs that indicate economic abuse.
    What is the legal definition of economic abuse?
    Additional provisions came into force as part of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021  and for the first time economic abuse was included within the definition of domestic abuse.
    The report states that “economic abuse” means any behaviour that has a substantial adverse effect on another person’s ability to:

    acquire, use or maintain money or other property, or
    obtain goods or services

    Economic abuse can take a variety of forms, including restricting a party’s access to financial information and controlling how those financial resources are utilised.
    In some cases, the alarm bells may ring early, particularly in the cases mentioned above in which a party has no knowledge of the financial resources and whose spouse has unilaterally controlled their financial resources for the majority of their marriage.
    In other cases, concerns may not arise until the financial disclosure becomes available.
    How does economic abuse impact divorce?
    Where economic abuse is a factor, getting full and frank financial disclosure from the opposing party may prove to be a battle where, after withholding financial details from their spouse for many years, they may continue to attempt to conceal and control assets.
    There are some legal tools to challenge inadequate disclosure, for example by raising a questionnaire, a schedule of deficiencies and in some cases obtaining a third-party disclosure order. There may also be a need to invite the court to draw negative inferences where the disclosure remains incomplete or questionable.
    After the expense and effort of obtaining as clear and complete a picture of the parties’ respective financial positions as possible, to what extent will the abusive behaviour impact on the outcome at a Final Hearing?
    Mostyn J outlines the four scenarios in which conduct may be considered in financial remedy cases in his judgment in OG v AG (Financial Remedies: Conduct) [2020] EWFC 52 as follows:

    Gross and obvious personal misconduct but only where there is a financial consequence. This will include economic misconduct provided the high evidential threshold is met;
    Add-back arguments where one party has ‘wantonly and recklessly dissipated assets’;
    Litigation misconduct which should be penalised in costs rather than affecting the substantive disposition;
    Drawing inferences over the extent of the asset base following a party’s failure to give full and frank disclosure.

    Mostyn J adds that ‘Conduct should be taken into account not only where it is inequitable to disregard but only where its impact is financially measurable’.
    Notable cases involving economic abuse
    DP v EP (Conduct; Economic Abuse; Needs) [2023]
    The recently reported case of DP v EP (conduct: economic abuse: needs) [2023] EWFC 6 appears to be the first case where economic abuse has been found to be conduct as defined by the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.
    An important factor in the case was that the husband (H) was functionally illiterate and had for the entirety of the lengthy marriage depended on the wife (W) to manage their financial resources for their joint benefit.
    The husband’s position was that the wife had exploited his illiteracy by siphoning off joint funds which had in part funded assets which were then concealed from him, and the court. The husband invited the judge:

    To add back certain items that he alleged the wife had misappropriated on the basis that she had either recklessly or deliberately dissipated them from the parties’ resources;
    To draw negative inferences against the wife and to find that she had undisclosed assets which derived from the funds she had misappropriated during the marriage;
    To find that the wife’s conduct amounted to economic abuse under s 1(4) DAA 2021 and that it would be inequitable to disregard her conduct under s 25(2)(g) MCA 1973.

    By comparison, the wife’s position was that there should be broad equality although she conceded that she should be solely liable for certain debts in her name.
    It was held that the wife’s conduct fulfilled the definition of economic abuse under DAA 2021.  The judge found that the wife held undisclosed assets and also ‘added back’ an additional sum in respect of misappropriated rental income from a jointly owned property.
    Notwithstanding the observation by Mostyn J in OG v AG, that in order to impact on the ultimate distribution conduct must have ‘financially measurable’ consequences, the judge also made a small departure from equality to reflect the wife’s poor conduct.
    The husband was awarded 53% of the total assets (as adjusted). The wife was also ordered to make a significant contribution towards the husband’s legal costs. In her judgement, Honour Judge Reardon states:
    ‘In my view, W’s conduct falls within the definition of economic abuse contained in DAA 2021. In the longer term, if not on a day to day basis, W’s conduct has had a substantial adverse effect on H’s ability to access and use his own money […] I appreciate that there are some forms of economic abuse, for example those that involve the coercive restriction of the other party’s day-to-day expenditure, that may be more familiar, and therefore more easily recognised as abusive. However, W’s conduct in this case involved the exploitation of a dominant position, which is the essence of all forms of abusive behaviour; and the fact that H was unaware of W’s behaviour at the time, and that it did not directly impact on his daily life during the marriage, has only made his subsequent discovery of it more shocking. I am in no doubt that H feels a profound sense of betrayal, and that the harm caused by W’s actions has extended well beyond the financial detriment they have caused.’
    Traharne v Limb [2022]
    The case of Traharne v Limb [2022] EWFC 27 addressed the closely linked issue of coercive and controlling behaviour as conduct. The case involved a post-nuptial agreement and the wife sought to argue that she was subjected to coercive and controlling behaviour and had not freely entered into the agreement.
    The judge ultimately awarded the wife additional provision but her conduct arguments against the husband were unsuccessful. The wife was criticised for the time and costs spent on the conduct issue which was found to be ‘entirely unnecessary’. Consequently, the wife did not recover her legal costs in full. Whilst not persuaded that coercive and controlling behaviour was a factor in this particular case, Sir Jonathan Cohen was clear in his judgment that it may be a relevant factor in other cases.
    ‘In my judgment, Ormrod LJ’s words are as relevant now as they were when uttered over 40 years ago. They stand the test of time. Coercive and controlling behaviour would plainly be an example of undue pressure, exploitation of a dominant position of relevant conduct. It would be part of all the circumstances as they affect the two parties in “the complex relationship of marriage”. If Ormrod LJ were writing his judgment today, he might have employed words such as “coercive and controlling behaviour”.’
    In summary, the inclusion of economic abuse within DAA 2021 and the decision in DP v EP has broadened the definition of conduct within financial remedy proceedings but the evidential threshold, in order to succeed with conduct arguments, remains high. The potential cost consequences of running an unsuccessful conduct argument must be borne in mind as is highlighted in the case of Traharne v Limb.
    Related links
    Stowe Guide – What is economic abuse?
    The cost of financial uncertainty on relationships

    The cost-of-living in an abusive relationship More

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    Can I contest a divorce?

    Respondents no longer have the ability to contest a divorce. However, they can still contest the divorce application on some legal grounds.
    Can I contest a divorce?
    Since new divorce laws were introduced in April 2022, it is no longer possible to contest a divorce.
    If your husband or wife filed for a divorce or civil partnership dissolution on or after April 6th 2022, you can only contest the divorce in exceptional legal circumstances. These include:

    Jurisdiction – if you of your partner live in another country, the courts in England and Wales may not be handle your application.
    If you can prove that the marriage or civil partnership was never valid. For example, if the marriage/civil partnership was not conducted in accordance with the laws of the country in which you married, meaning you did not enter into a legally legitimate marriage/civil partnership.
    If the marriage/civil partnership has already legally ended. For example, if you’ve already gone through divorce proceedings in another country.

    If any of the reasons for contesting a divorce apply, you will need to file a response to the application explaining your reason for disputing the proceedings.
    It is highly recommended you seek legal advice before responding to the divorce application.
    Can I disagree with an application without contesting the divorce?
    No. The only ground for divorce is that one or both parties believe the marriage has irretrievably broken down. No other facts have a bearing on the divorce process or outcome. As there are no longer any accusations of blame to challenge, any disagreement is irrelevant in UK divorce law.
    How do I respond to a divorce application?
    If your spouse has applied for divorce as a sole applicant, the court will send you (the respondent) a copy of the application by email, along with a follow-up letter. The email will include, the completed divorce application, the Notice of Proceedings, and the Acknowledgment of Service.
    You will need to complete and return the Acknowledgment of Service to the court within 14 days of receipt of the application. To ensure you begin the process smoothly, your divorce solicitor can assist you with completing this document before it’s filed with the court.
    How long does a divorce take?
    On average, a divorce takes six-eight months.
    Within the process, there are two compulsory waiting periods:

    A 20-week cooling-off period after the court has issued the application before the conditional order can be granted.
    A 6-week waiting period until you can apply to the court for a final order.

    Furthermore, a lack of cooperation by one side, complicated financial concerns and/or child arrangements, and delays at divorce centres and family courts can all contribute to the length of a divorce.
    Typically, it takes around a year to end a marriage and get a financial settlement.
    What about any financial issues or child arrangements?
    The process of divorce simply ends the marriage contract. Divorce does not resolve financial matters or child arrangements. These must be resolved separately. We recommend you take legal advice as early as possible to ensure that you achieve a fair outcome.
    To make financial agreements legally binding, you must record them in a consent order that the court must approve.
    How do we reach a financial settlement?
    Ideally you and your ex-spouse will be able to discuss finances and negotiate a settlement between you. We recommend that you seek advice from a family lawyer to ensure that the agreement you reach doesn’t disadvantage you.
    However if you need support with working towards a financial agreement, there are options including solicitor-led negotiation, mediation, collaborative family law or arbitration. Each of these options allow you and your ex-partner to retain control of the outcome and stay out of the family courts.
    However, for some negotiation is not possible and mutual agreements simply cannot be reached. In cases like these you will need to make an application for a financial order to the court. This means a judge will consider all the facts of your case and make a decision on your behalf. Once a decision has been reached, the financial order is legally binding and remains valid unless you or your ex apply to the court for an amendment.
    Clean break order
    If you are divorcing and have no assets to divide, or financial commitments towards each other, you can cut financial ties between you and your ex-spouse by applying for a clean break order. A clean break order is a legally binding financial settlement agreed by both parties that prevents future financial claims against each other, including pensions, inheritance, or windfalls such as lottery wins.
    Do I need legal advice for my divorce?
    It is vital that you get expert legal advice from a family lawyer who will guide you through the divorce process and establish the best course of action for you. By speaking with our experienced family solicitors as early as possible, you can ensure that your interests are safeguarded from the outset.
    Useful links
    A guide to the divorce process
    Where do I start? A beginners guide to divorce
    Can you revisit a clean break order? More