Published on December 18, 2023

What is family law in England & Wales? It is an area of law that encompasses all aspects of marital and relationship breakdown. Broadly, it covers financial matters which arise on divorce or at the end of a relationship and matters concerning children. Family lawyers who practice in this area may specialise in financial or children matters, but this is not always the case.

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Family Law: divorce and financial matters

Divorce is perhaps the most obvious area within family law. The divorce process itself is relatively straightforward (as long as both parties agree that the divorce can proceed in England & Wales), and currently takes place on an online portal.

The process of reaching a financial settlement on divorce is also part of family law. Most separating couples will be able resolve matters directly between themselves, but they may be assisted in this process by a mediator or family lawyers, where appropriate. Only where it is not possible to reach an agreement voluntarily will it be necessary to apply to court for assistance in reaching a financial agreement.  

Family law also includes legal issues which arise at the outset of a relationship, and couples who wish to enter into a cohabitation agreement (when you move in together) or a pre-nuptial agreement (an agreement signed before marriage which regulates the division of assets in the event of a breakdown in the relationship) should obtain advice from a family lawyer.

Family Law: cohabitation

It is a common misconception that, if a couple lives together for many years without getting married, they will acquire similar legal rights on the breakdown of their relationship as married couples do. Unfortunately, this is not the case. For example, if a property is owned by one partner, the other partner is unlikely to have a right to a share of that property unless they have contributed towards it financially.

Where a dispute does arise between unmarried partners regarding property, this may be dealt with in either the family courts or the civil courts, and legal advice should be sought.

When unmarried parents separate, there are also financial claims which can be made for the benefit of any children of the family. These are known as Schedule 1 claims, and can include a property for until the child turns 18 or finishes education, after which the asset returns to the paying parent.

Family Law: children law (public and private)

Children matters are broken down further into private and public law.

Private law children disputes will arise when separated parents cannot agree arrangements for their children, or where their children should live and be educated. Grandparents or other family members may also be involved in such disputes. Private children law matters may involve allegations of domestic abuse, which includes emotional and psychological harm, as well as physical harm.

Private law is also concerned with the international movement of children. For example, where a child has been unlawfully removed from their country of residence, or if a parent wishes to move abroad with their children and does not have the consent of the other parent, advice should be sought from a specialist family lawyer who practises in children law. Advice and support can also be obtained from Reunite, the leading UK charity specialising in the international movement of children.

If there are no serious allegations of domestic abuse, mediators can work with parents to reach a resolution regarding arrangements for their children. Many mediators will also offer child-inclusive mediation, allowing for the voice of the child to be heard during the process.

Public children law covers instances where the local authority is required to safeguard a child or potentially remove them from their parents, if they consider that there is a risk of harm to that child.

Adoption and surrogacy matters are also family law matters.

What is not Family Law?

While it is a separate area of law, outside the scope of family law, some family lawyers may also undertake Court of Protection work. This is concerned with circumstances arising when someone loses capacity to make decisions about their financial affairs or personal welfare.

Family lawyers will not generally deal with other areas of law that impact families. For example, will drafting and inheritance matters will be dealt with by Private Client lawyers.

How do I obtain Family Law advice?

If you have an issue relating to family law, you can search for a family law solicitor on the Law Society website or on the Resolution website. Resolution is a network of family lawyers who have signed up to the Resolution Code of Practice which commits to a non-confrontational approach to resolving family law issues.

If you would like to attend mediation regarding a family law issue, the Family Mediation Council maintains a professional register of accredited family mediators and has additional information and resources about mediation and whether it can assist in your case.

Legal aid is available only in limited circumstances, and is generally both means and merits tested. Further advice, and guidance as to the legal aid process, can be found HERE

There are many different routes you can take when separating and divorcing. You can read more about them HERE.

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The Early Days Of Separation

Humans are designed to cope with many onslaughts, but change continues to prove extremely challenging. How you manage the early days of separation or divorce has the potential to set the tone for the rest of the process.

When couples separate, they are often thrown into a period of uncertainty. Identities are changing from couple to single, from mum and dad together as a family unit to mum with children and dad with children. Depending on the circumstances and who decides to leave the family home, there are many questions that arise during the early days of separation. “Will we have to sell our home?” “I haven’t worked since we had children – how will we manage financially?” “What will our friends and family think?” “How much will divorce cost?”
“Will I cope on my own?” There seems to be so much to sort out both practically and emotionally and it comes at a time when at least one of you will be ‘all over the place’ emotionally due to the loss you are experiencing. This can make decision-making seem impossible. Who wants to agree the practicalities of legal issues and more importantly organise the children when they are devastated, angry and confused by loss? It can turn otherwise rational, clear-thinking mums and dads into what appears to be belligerent, stubborn, unreasonable people.

Take Your Time!

In those early days of separation or divorce, take your time if you can. Seek support from friends, family and professionals. Try not to make any big decisions too quickly.
Bear in mind that communication problems with your ex and all the pressures on family life you are now experiencing, like for many separating couples, will get better with time. It’s important to recognise that you and your ex will more than likely be in very different emotional places at the moment; different stress levels and anxieties will be making communication difficult. Taking the time to sometimes do nothing, to not react, give things a day or two, can prove very useful techniques.
What you have to remember is that if you have children, your ex is always going to be part of your life. That can be hard to take on board when you are feeling hurt and angry. If you can find a way to communicate with each other that focuses on the children, you will all benefit in the years to come.

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