More talk time is priority for splitting couples

Hard on the heels of Britain’s longest-running and most bitter divorce, the Government has said it will be pushing more couples towards mediation, whilst the price of applying for a divorce is likely to treble, to more accurately reflect the court cost.

The multi-million pound divorce case of Young v Young was, according to the judge, “extraordinary even by the standards of the most bitter of matrimonial breakdowns”.  The seven-year court battle between the couple has cost millions and notched up 65 hearings in court before the wife finally secured a £20m financial award last month.  And the case may yet return to court to deal with costs and enforcing the award.

The millions spent in the financial battle fought by the Youngs may come from another world, but the cost of divorce is set to rise for everyone under plans being considered by the Ministry of Justice.  As part of a move to make people pay the true cost of the court’s time, from Spring this year couples are likely to be asked to pay £750 in court fees for an uncontested divorce, almost treble the current fee of £270. The court fee for the divorce petition would remain unchanged at £410 and discounts would continue for those who qualify, for example being on maximum benefits.

But alongside these financial proposals, the Government is also pushing ahead with plans intended to reduce the emotional and financial burden of the whole process, with the announcement of more mediation for couples who are splitting up.

Under proposed measures in the Children and Families Bill, which is in its final stages of going through Parliament, couples who are separating and want to apply for a court order about children or financial matters must first attend what is being called a “mediation information and assessment meeting”. Some exemptions will apply, such as evidence of domestic violence.

Although some 120,000 couples in England and Wales separate every year, previous efforts by the Government to encourage couples into mediation have not seen good take-up, even though the results of mediation show that it is faster and cheaper than going to court – the average time for a mediated case is 110 days compared to 435 days for non-mediated cases.

Family law expert Mandeep Clair of Greenwich and Blackheath based solicitors Grant Saw explained:  “In a court case, the judge will have much wider discretion, but it’s not the job of the judge to arrange a compromise that both sides can live with.  That’s where mediation comes in, as it gives both sides much more control over the outcome as they can refuse to accept the mediator’s proposals at any stage and keep on parleying, and there’s more room for compromise.

“People often reject the idea of mediation because they’re worried about being bullied or can’t face seeing their ex, but you don’t have to sit in the same room and it doesn’t stop you having a legal adviser at your side to help put your case.”

The remaining stages of the Children and Families Bill are expected to be completed in the next few months, but in the meantime January continues to be the peak period for couples deciding to separate, with official figures showing that internet searches for ‘divorce’ on Government sites such as www.justice.gov.uk peak in January.

And there are increasing numbers of older couples splitting up.  Statistics show a 73% increase between 1991 to 2011 in the number of men aged 60+ who are divorcing.

She added: “If a couple make that tough decision and call time on their marriage, it’s important they don’t overlook updating their wills.  If you have an existing will leaving everything to your spouse, that will become invalid once the decree absolute is confirmed, but until that time it is still valid even if you have separated or received your decree nisi.”

Young v Young [2013] EWHC 3637 (Fam)

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.