The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has confirmed that it will tighten up the enforcement of financial orders between divorcing couples. Each year, courts order one spouse or civil partner to pay money or transfer property to another after a relationship breaks down, but these are often not complied with, which causes significant hardship for former spouses and their children.
A 2016 Law Commission report concluded the law was over-complicated and there was a lack of means to apply pressure to debtors who could but didn’t pay.
In a letter to the Law Commission this week, justice minister Lucy Frazer confirmed that measures will be brought forward to improve enforcement. The MoJ is considering legislative reform giving courts wider powers to obtain information from third parties about debtor’s assets; extend enforcement measures to include seizure of pension assets and joint bank accounts; and give courts powers to add pressure on debtors who refuse to pay by disqualifying them from driving or travelling out of the country.
In the meantime, the MoJ will amend the Family Procedure Rules 2010 to make the rules on enforcement easier to use, improve the general enforcement application, publish guidance for litigants on enforcement, make court forms easier for debtors and creditors to understand and streamline the system to cut down on unnecessary hearings.
Law Commissioner Professor Nick Hopkins said: ‘These reforms will help to prevent serious hardship that some face when debtors refuse to pay, and I’m pleased government is taking action to help those most in need.’
Joanna Pratt, family law partner at Thomson Snell & Passmore, said ‘the regime for enforcing financial orders made in family proceedings is complicated, disjointed, and for a lay client almost impossible to navigate’.
However, she highlighted the slowness of the government in responding to the 2016 Law Commission report.
Toby Hales, family partner at Seddons, said: ‘These proposed reforms are no more than a sticking plaster. Yes, there may be the odd person who feels more confident going to court to enforce financial orders following these changes. But they ignore the elephant in the room: the problem is that people in this situation very often cannot afford legal advice (because of the breach of the order itself), and legal aid is now unavailable in almost all family cases. Clearer court forms are no substitute for expert advice and representation from a matrimonial solicitor.’
John Darnton, family and matrimonial consultant at Bircham Dyson Bell, said: ‘All family practitioners probably agree that the procedure to enforce financial orders is a mess and this undoubtedly enables unscrupulous non-payers to “play the system”.
‘Anything that can be done to streamline the system and to make it more intelligible are to be welcomed. Sadly, changing the rules will only be part of the solution. Court closures and other cutbacks mean that progress through the court can often be at a snail’s pace.'
Article originally published by the New law Journal.