Divorce courts for super-rich win cautious welcome from lawyers

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Dec 06, 2017
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Sir James Munby said that the courts would deal with divorce cases involving millions of pounds 

Chris Harris for The Times

Controversial plans to create a court for super-rich couples to battle over financial issues when divorcing have received a qualified welcome from specialist lawyers.

Sir James Munby, head of the family courts in England and Wales, said that financial remedies courts would deal with claims that could involve millions of pounds and take several years to resolve.

The courts will be piloted in London, the West Midlands and southeast Wales from February.

Figures released by the Ministry of Justice show that the average number of weeks it takes for a case to get to a decree absolute, the final stage, has risen from 42 in 2006 to almost 49 last year.

Courts are trying to tackle delays by centralising divorce procedures at specialist “over-the-counter” centres. In 2014-15, 11 of these were set up and legal advisers were given the power to deal with cases that did not involve financial settlements.

There are hopes that the specialist financial courts will reduce delays and inefficiencies caused by courts hearing many different types of cases.

Jo Carr-West, a partner at the London law firm Hunters, said “anything that streamlines the court system and makes it more efficient is a welcome step forward for any divorcing couple, not just the super-rich”.

But she warned that “even if increased efficiency helps to reduce the cost of the process for those involved in it, the reality remains that financial litigation on divorce is the preserve of those brave enough to represent themselves or those who can afford long-term legal representation.”

Toby Hales, a partner in the family team at fellow London law firm Seddons, added that the “the more experienced and specialist the judge, the better the outcome for separating couples”.

And Nicholas Westley, a partner at the London firm Harbottle & Lewis, argued that the courts would in fact be open to all cases and not just those involving the very wealthy. 

“Given the administrative delays and inefficiencies of the current system,” said Westley, “most super-wealthy couples avoid the courts like the plague.

“It is hoped that an advantage of these reforms may be that greater judicial continuity in financial cases can be achieved. It is universally accepted that judicial continuity is best practice, yet it only tends to happen in public law cases involving children.” 

Pressure has been mounting for reform of family laws, including the way assets are split on divorce. The Times, along with the Marriage Foundation charity, is calling for a series of changes, including ending fault-based divorce and an overhaul of the way maintenance is awarded, as part of the Family Matters campaign.

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