Bristol, Baronesses and Baa-ing – Resolution’s 30th National Conference

11th May 2018

Representatives from each of the Blake Morgan family team’s, including Rachel Giles and James Davies recently attended Resolution’s 30th National Conference, which was billed as the highlight of the family law calendar.

Held in sunny Bristol, the two-day event over 20th and 21st April kicked off with the AGM, electing Margaret Heathcote as the new National Chair, and electing six new National Committee members, including Blake Morgan’s Farhana Shahzady who is a Partner in the London office.

The day continued with excellent and detailed finance and children updates, and a networking lunch. Following an address by the National Chair, Baroness Hale took to the stage for the keynote address. Fiona Greener, Chair of Bristol Resolution, described Baroness Hale as having a “past littered with smashed glass ceilings”. Baroness Hale delivered an inspirational speech. She discussed the possible future reforms of private family law, including the much needed non-fault based divorce; spousal maintenance for shorter terms; safeguards for nuptial contracts, civil partnerships extended to heterosexual couples (or in fact the abolition of civil partnerships completely now that marriage has already been extended to same sex couples) and financial protection for cohabitees. Points of note were her comments on welcoming reforms increasing family responsibility. She appeared less enthusiastic for measures that attenuated family life, such as pre-nuptial agreements and the growing clamour for short term maintenance orders when it was not appropriate. She also commented on the uncomfortable position for separating couples perhaps having to navigate five different processes (interim applications, divorce, financial remedies, child arrangements and child support), in resolving matters after a separation.

Baroness Hale would prefer for there to be a one stop shop for family cases, preferably available online. This would seem sensible, as it may be that there are a further five processes as options for potential resolution – mediation, collaboration, arbitration, traditional negotiation and Court proceedings – potentially resulting in a huge number of confusing options for separating families. The family law maze is perplexing for the best of us! Baroness Hale however sadly predicted that in some of the cases before her, which of course includes Owens v Owens, the hands of the Supreme Court Judges could well be tied, since they cannot change statute and can only interpret it. Moreover, she sadly predicted that Parliament’s hands would be tied for at least a decade because of Brexit, which means family law reforms at a statutory level would inevitably take a backseat. For our part, we would also like to see reforms to protect the 100,000 or so Muslims, mostly vulnerable women, who do not have legally recognised marriages and therefore few legal remedies. There is, however, disappointingly, little prospect of mandatory registration of Muslim weddings being introduced when the whole system is congested and there is already a backlog of important family law innovations to be made.

Friday concluded with the first of the various workshops, with Blake Morgan attendees expanding knowledge on clients’ communication techniques and taking part in a animated debate regarding lifetime spousal maintenance which is so often pejoratively described by the press as “a meal ticket for life”. The majority of sensible lawyers came out in favour of lifetime maintenance awards where appropriate, although very few joint lives orders are now actually made, despite the press vilifying those wives who seek such an award. The most recent wife to be publicly guillotined is Mrs Waggott.

Saturday began with further workshops, including the trouble with tax (with some attendees perhaps slightly worse for wear following the dinner dance the previous evening!). A lively Family Justice Question Time followed, moderated by the BBC’s Sanchia Berg. The panellists consisted of HHJ Wildblood QC designated Family Judge for Bristol, Frances Judd QC, Baroness Deech, Louise Tickle (journalist) and Daniel Eames of Clarke Willmott. Subjects of the debate included adoption, transparency in family courts, maintenance for spouses and the action each of the panellists would take if they were Minister for Family Justice. There were some interesting viewpoints with disagreements between members of the panel themselves and also with the audience. It made for an interesting hour.

The day finally closed with an address from Colin Jones, Chief Executive of Resolution, and the final round of workshops. Blake Morgan attended a mock FDR (Financial Dispute Resolution) and expanded knowledge of international enforcement of English orders which is a growing area of practice.

The conference was an inspirational and educational weekend, hosted brilliantly by Bristol Resolution. The reference to baa-ing in the title? Justice Lamb keyrings were specially commissioned and provided to delegates, in conjunction with the Grand Appeal, supporting the local children’s hospital charity. An amusing souvenir for a great cause, rounding off a fulfilling weekend.

Further information can be found on the Learn Resolution website, which can be accessed by all members of Resolution, regardless of attendance at the Conference.

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