Divorce and Financial Matters during Covid-19 Pandemic
25 March 2020 by Simon Osborn
Will hearings go ahead?
A key role of the Family Courts is to manage financial remedy cases from an early stage. The Family Courts have issued guidance to protect court staff, and parties and their representatives in the current Covid-19 outbreak.
First Directions Appointments
So far as First Directions Appointments are concerned, the Courts have issued guidance that parties should strive to use the “accelerated” paper-only procedure.
This involves parties agreeing the directions and orders in advance so that, if approved by the Judge, the First Appointment hearing does not need to take place and can be cancelled. Parties will need to send the required documents and a draft agreed order to the court 2 weeks prior to the hearing. It is advisable to bring all the court deadlines leading up to the hearing, as set out in the Form C (the Notice of First Appointment), forward by 2 weeks to achieve this.
Parties will need to attend the First Appointment unless the directions and order have been agreed with the other party in advance of the hearing and approved by the Judge, who has also agreed to cancel the First Appointment hearing. If there is a hearing it is likely that this will have to take place remotely, by telephone or video link.
What about other types of hearings?
For all other hearings, the courts have issued guidance that these are to take place remotely unless in exceptional circumstances. Remote hearings may take place by telephone or by using Skype for Business, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, for example.
Parties will be encouraged to appoint a private judge to undertake the Financial Dispute Resolution Hearing (FDR). This usually involves appointing a very experienced Barrister or Solicitor to give an indication as to what they consider would be a reasonable financial settlement in this particular case, and to encourage the parties to reach agreement without a final hearing. This should be carried out remotely and will incur a cost for the parties who will have to pay for the private FDR judge.
There is also a role for trained Family Arbitrators to provide a binding agreement for the parties without the need to use the court. Again, the process will need to be undertaken remotely.
If you are the Applicant and are represented or if the Applicant is unrepresented and you are a represented Respondent, your solicitor should organise the remote hearing with the court, private FDR judge or Family Arbitrator. If neither party has legal representation, then the court will organise this.
Where possible, parties are encouraged to come to agreements before the hearing and agree an order so that, if possible, the hearing is no longer necessary and can be cancelled.
It is also understood that the court is likely to postpone a number of hearings that it considers are less urgent.
The physical lodging and handling of documents should be avoided. Use of ebundles is mandatory.
Local courts are expected to provide more guidance on this point.
Will my divorce be delayed?
Prior to Covid-19 pandemic the family courts were faced with significant delays which meant that any paper divorce applications could take 6-9 months to process.
The courts introduced a new online system where divorces can be processed faster. However, staff illnesses and remote working will likely cause delays with the court and it is difficult, at this stage, to know the exact extent of such delays.
What happens if our financial circumstances change due to Covid-19?
We are currently facing uncertain times and it is difficult to know when financial markets will pick up following the inevitable drop caused by Covid-19. It is likely that more individuals may be faced with financial instability; that the value of assets may decrease and the sale of properties may take longer, which would have an impact on the availability of liquid funds for separating couples.
If it is possible to reach a final agreement it is important for it to be recorded in a court order made in divorce proceedings or other formal legal document. Individuals should seek independent legal advice to ensure that the agreement is fair, and binding to prevent further claims being made at a later date.
If a court order has just been made finalising financial matters between you and your ex-spouse and you are worried about implementation of the agreement due to a change in your circumstances, you should seek further advice from a solicitor as soon as possible. You can find out more information on Spousal Periodical Payments and how these have been affected by Coronavirus here.
Of course, the rules that we must following during this pandemic are constantly changing as the courts develop good practice.
If you would like advice about divorce or financial matters we have an experienced team of family lawyers who are able to advise and assist you – contact Fisher Jones Greenwood by calling 01206 700113 or email [email protected].