The recent Queen’s Speech contained a number of key family law reform for various areas of the law. In particular, the speech unveiled a set of proposals aimed at reforming family law.
The biggest set of family law reform contained within the speech relates to care and adoption. The Children and Social Work Bill has proposed a major shake-up of adoption laws, designed to improve the situation both for children and for families who would like to adopt. It increases the emphasis on permanent adoption into a stable home and family, and aims to make the process of adoption faster and easier.
The Children and Social Work Bill also aimed to improve the lives of those children in the care system, whether this is through state care homes or foster care. Levels of support and standards of service available to these children would be improved through the proposals in the bill, and the amount of support for care leavers in particular would be significantly increased. Professional support would be available to young adults leaving care to help with the transition into independent living, and to improve employment prospects.
The government also revealed a number of other measures aimed at supporting families, albeit largely outside what could be classed as family law. These include proposals designed to improve education and to help younger and low-income families to build up savings.
However, while the family law reform proposed for the adoption and care system are significant, outside of this area coverage of family law in the Queen’s Speech was very limited. This has left some industry figures and commentators disappointed, as measures that were hoped for in the Queen’s Speech turned out to be absent and certain problems with the current state of family law were left unaddressed.
The introduction of a fault-free divorce facility was one such hoped-for reform that failed to materialise. The UK’s divorce system has long attracted criticism and accusations of archaism due to the continued need for blame to be assigned to a party. A blameless divorce route for couples who have simply fallen out of love and grown apart has been repeatedly called for, and some hoped that the recent speech was going to answer these calls.
At the opposite end of a marriage, some had also hoped the speech would include measures to make pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements legally binding. Whilst these kinds of agreements are increasingly being recognised by courts as a major decision-making factor, they are not – contrary to popular belief – currently binding under UK law. This is despite calls from the Law Commission and a promise of response from the government.
Limitations to the rights of cohabiting couples were also an issue that many hoped – in vain, as it turned out – would be addressed by the Queen’s Speech. Those who have cohabited for many years in a relationship no less serious or committed than a marriage can find they have few legal rights when the relationship ends. Many believe that they have protection under the principle of “common law marriage,” but this is essentially a misconception as common law marriage does not actually exist under law.
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