The legal sector has changed beyond recognition in recent years, and family law has seen some of the biggest developments: civil partnerships, major changes in the courts’ approach to children, and the ever-evolving law around gender recognition are just some of the major moves we’ve seen.
This year, there’s been a general trend towards greater understanding of family law issues on the part of lawmakers, which is always to be encouraged. The continued impact of the Legal Services Act has been fascinating, especially seeing how things like the implementation of Alternative Business Structures and the curtailing of widespread access to Legal Aid have played out.
But the biggest change of all may yet be around the corner. Largely against expectations, the victory of the Leave campaign in the recent EU Referendum will surely bring about a massive shake-up for family law.
Before the referendum, I was interviewed about the likely impact of a “Brexit” vote on the law here in Wales. My opinion was that given the longevity and depth of the relationship between the UK and the European Union, it would be inconceivable that a Leave vote would not somehow have an extremely wide-ranging and disruptive effect on the body of UK legislation that has built up over the past half-century.
Nothing that I’ve seen since the referendum, including the change of Prime Minister and the continuing confusion over implementation of Article 50 to take the UK out of the European Union for good, has changed my mind on this point; there is no doubt big changes are coming.
Law handed down from Europe has had a formative influence on half a century of British statutes, and references to European laws can be found in almost any piece of British legislation from the past 40 years. Untangling that is going to be a huge task in itself – and, while the existing laws are simply being amended to remove references to the EU, it would not surprise me if our lawmakers took the opportunity to tweak, revise or rewrite some of the law governing families and children to better reflect the new political reality.
Should we be worried? Without wanting to sound alarmist, I do think that there is cause for concern, not just because of the disruption that will be caused to lawyers, but in terms of the impact it is likely to have on real people’s day-to-day experiences, economically as well as legally – particularly given that family law is such an integral part of people’s personal lives when those issues arise.
Day after day, I speak with clients who are already worried about their futures as they move into an unknown new phase in their lives. Now, in the wake of the Brexit vote, those concerns will only deepen until the dust settles on the aftermath of Britain’s momentous decision. By that time, the legal landscape for family matters might look rather different to today.
Both the likely effect of any major, sweeping changes to legislation, and the uncertainty over what those changes might be, are bound to have negative consequences in my opinion. Our job as family lawyers is to keep abreast of those changes and continue to look after our clients’ best interests whatever the political situation.
Sarah is one of our directors and has been dealing with all manners of family law issues, including high net worth clients, children act matters and ToLATA forever. She is also involved with Stonewall Cymru and advises same sex couples going through the same separation issues.