01st Sep 2015

Family Law in Partnership Turns 20

As Family Law in Partnership turns 20 today, we review the changes to family law in the intervening period.

Twenty years ago The Times newspaper reported on a family law practice that opened for business in anticipation of the fundamental reforms of divorce law to be introduced by the Family Law Act 1996. As the new arrival, now known as Family Law in Partnership, turns 20 today we consider what has changed in family law in the intervening period and whether all, or indeed any, of that early promise has been fulfilled.

Director Gillian Bishop, one of the founders, reflected “By and large the family justice system has improved, particularly for the well off – but others have been hit incredibly hard by the dismantling of the welfare state. The removal of Legal Aid for most has forced more individuals to forage for their own solutions in a world of such complexity that those less able to look after themselves are likely to be in great difficulty. Overall, I would say that whilst the professionals have made things better, on balance the State has made it harder for families to separate well – we have made advances, but a good separation is much harder to achieve than I hoped it would be when we set out.”

So, how have things changed since Lord McKay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor back in 1995, held the press conference to launch the 1996 Act in the firm’s boardroom twenty years ago?

Relationship support

The firm opened offering a “one stop shop” where clients could obtain legal advice and representation together with mediation and counselling under one roof. Bishop notes: “Back in 1995 we wanted to create a family law firm that could deliver a bespoke service to clients from all walks of life and combine counselling, mediation and legal skills of the highest quality – I believe we have achieved this.” Mediator & counsellor Ruth Smallacombe agrees, but is disappointed by the poor spread of the model. “We thought that firms like ours would spring up all over the place and that the much needed integration of legal advice and representation with mediation and counselling would be common-place. Systemic and therapeutic services are much more common now than in the 1990s but for too many family breakdown is a law-managed process, with families led by the crude structures of legal precedent and lawyer-deal-making un-informed by the couple’s own insights and principles. Both aspects are needed.” With this in mind, Family Law in Partnership offers Parenting After Parting workshops for parents undergoing separation to share ideas on how best to manage the process for their children.


The firm was born of the expectation promised by the 1996 Act that would simplify the divorce procedure and bring mediation centre-stage. The Act was abandoned by the Blair government, leaving mediation to depend first on Legal Aid and then on rule changes in 2011 and 2014 which introduced compulsory mediation information and assessment meetings (MIAMs). Dominic Raeside, Head of Mediation at Family Law in Partnership and one of London’s leading mediators, notes “Mediation has traditionally been taken up by about 15% of families. It offers a cost effective way for people to make decisions about their futures, how they will divide assets and parent any children and so on.”

Alternative processes

While the uptake of mediation may have been slower than anticipated back in 1995, other initiatives have jostled for space. Family Law in Partnership was at the forefront of the introduction of the collaborative (no court) model of dispute resolution into the UK in 2003. Over 1,250 lawyers have trained as collaborative practitioners in England and Wales, with more than 22,000 lawyers trained in collaborative practice worldwide. Collaborative practice sees clients supported by their own lawyers in face to face meetings, underpinned by a code of conduct and a set of commitments to transparency and positive, interest-based negotiations.

Family Law in Partnership has also embraced the family arbitration scheme, a model that sees the appointment of a “private judge” whose award binds the parties. Two Family Law in Partnership directors James Pirrie and Bradley Williams offer this service. Although the model is not yet available for children issues in England and Wales, Pirrie is a strong advocate, having been involved in a number of the cases that have taken place to date. “Government cut-backs have meant longer delays at Court, more cases going part-heard, meaning delays of months. Against this, arbitration offers a tailored service that can slash delays from the calendar and thousands of pounds from the bill. The most appropriate arbitrator can be appointed to decide the case, which is then timetabled to the parties’ convenience rather than the Court’s availability. What is not to like? I have been hugely frustrated by the profession’s conservatism, which is costing dear those families who can’t reach their own agreements through mediated or collaborative approaches.”


England clings to its divorce grounds created in the late 1960s that require proof of adultery, behaviour or over two years of separation before a divorce can be granted. After the 1996 reforms were abandoned, successive governments have seen too much risk and too little reward in bringing our systems up to date. Resolution, the 6500 strong national organisation of family lawyers, of which four Family Law in Partnership members have been board members and one, director David Allison, chair, continues to campaign for change. The judiciary does what it can to pass through petitions on flimsy behavioural grounds but it is profoundly unhelpful to be forced to look into the past and focus on past conduct when what is really needed is a focus on the future.

International & relocation

A family separation that involved international elements might have been noteworthy in the mid 1990s. Now most cases will involve international aspects of one sort or another. Tightening immigration rules have made things particularly hard for some families. In the mid 1990s, courts were in the grip of the decision in Payne, a case that dictated that courts generally permitted parents to return abroad with their children, even where this would involve the splitting of the family and a much reduced relationship with the left-behind parent. A Court of Appeal decision in March 2011 was seen as the trigger for an about turn, at least in some courts, bringing our law much closer into line with many of the Commonwealth jurisdictions, where permission for relocation, if one parent objects, is exceptional.

Same sex relationships and civil partnerships

During his time as chair of Resolution, Allison campaigned for legal recognition of civil partnerships and identifies this as one of the key areas of change for the good over the last twenty years. In the mid 1990s the thought that the State would recognise civil partnership seemed a distant hope. There was a sudden change in 2004 with the passing of the Civil Partnership Act. It became obvious that wider change was needed. Since then we have achieved a unified code applying to all relationships without discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation with The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 coming into force in mid 2014.

But the same cannot be said for cohabitants. Allison worked on Lord Lester’s cohabitation bill to promote legislation for change and give vulnerable cohabitants some form of redress. The government would not offer backing in 2009 and since then attempts have been made to revive the Bill.

Child Support

In 1995 the Child Support Agency was struggling and despite the first of its four major rule changes was seeing a build-up of unpaid maintenance. Respite would not come until an improved formula, for which Pirrie campaigned hard with Resolution, went live in 2003 and subsequent administrative improvements were introduced. But now he says the government is abandoning the principle of offering a system for all. “We are facing a cruder system, with clear opportunities for parents to side-step obligations and the certainty of high fees at some stage. This will further deter applications, risking a return to the older unregulated system.”

Financial provision

Back in the 1990s, the Courts could carve out for the applicant spouse only what that spouse could show they needed. This left spouses of the very rich with what might have seemed like a pauper’s share of the greater pot. From 2000, the Courts adopted the principle that marriage is a partnership of equals entitling each side to equal shares and restricting “special contribution” usually to cases involving multiple tens of millions of pounds. By and large sharing continues to be the starting point and only when needs cannot be met is further intervention required.

Pension sharing arrived at much the same time, permitting spouses of pensioners to share equally in the funds built up during the marriage. The soaring maintenance awards seen in the mid-noughties, (most notably with Family Law in Partnership’s success in the cases of McFarlane in the House of Lords in 2006 and again in the High Court on a variation in 2009) are now being pulled back with further restraints anticipated.

Pre-marriage agreements

In the 1990s “pre-nups” were seen as the preserve of only the very rich and famous. A succession of cases since 2010 has seen them move to become more commonplace. Director Daniel Coombes says “Like other family law firms we are seeing increasing numbers of instructions for pre nups. We have yet to see many challenges to pre nups which makes us hopeful that we are creating structures that work for couples and give them the capacity to resolve issues between themselves in the event of marital breakdown.”

“Over the last 20 years I have been able to watch Family Law in Partnership really fly” concludes Bishop. “The firm has grown in size and stature and many of our lawyers and mediators are recognised as leaders in the field. In 2011 Family Law in Partnership was named Family Law Firm of the Year in the inaugural Family Law Awards, one of the many accolades the firm has received in recent years. However, what worries me most is the overall perception of the profession. So many people are anxious about the motives of the family lawyer, leading them to try to do a diy job off the back of some perhaps misunderstood internet guidance. What is at stake is so enormous – everything the couple has and all that they will earn, quite apart from the most important thing they have created – their children – that side stepping even an initial consultation meeting seems shortsighted indeed. Perhaps the firm has a sibling growing up in the wings somewhere ready to make this message plain.”