Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Twin Track Family Justice - can money and influence buy an effective service?

This blog is written by my colleague (and guest blogger), Margaret Heathcote.  Margaret has many years of experience in dealing with matrimonial issues, having worked in the Court Service at the Principal Registry of the Family Division before joining the profession in 1996.  She specialises in all areas of private family law, and particularly in advising in relation to complex matrimonial finance issues, often with an international element.

So, decree nisi (the so-called “quickie divorce” so beloved of the tabloids) has been pronounced in Nigella Lawson’s and Charles Saatchi’s divorce proceedings.

It is unsurprising that these are the sort of family proceedings in which the media show an interest.  Doubtless if, as seems unlikely, there is to be a financial dispute between the two wealthy parties, the media will show an interest in that too. 

For it is a truth universally acknowledged that if a rich couple divorce and have a scrap over the money (or, better still, their children), then the public will delight in reading of their pain.

What interests me, however, as a practitioner in this case is the almost uncanny speed with which the “quickie divorce” was achieved.

The chronology as I understand it is this:

·                   on Sunday 16 June, photographs appeared in the Sunday People of Miss Lawson and Mr Saatchi outside Scott’s Restaurant, apparently mid-row, with Saatchi’s hands around Lawson’s throat;

·                   during the following week Miss Lawson left their home, and rented a flat in Mayfair;

·                   on Friday  21 June, Mr Saatchi accepted a Police Caution in respect of his assault on Miss Lawson;

·                   on 7 July, Mr Saatchi announced via the Daily Mail that he intended to divorce Miss Lawson;

·                   early the following week, Miss Lawson instructed Fiona Shackleton to represent her, and

·                   on 31 July decree nisi is pronounced.

At this point, I’m obliged to make a couple of assumptions: first, that Baroness Shackleton was instructed before 7 July, and therefore had the documentation ready to issue a Petition promptly after Mr Saatchi’s announcement; second, that she was able to persuade Mr Saatchi to do the decent thing and be the Respondent to Miss Lawson’s Petition. 

Let us proceed on the basis this is correct.  What must have followed was the issue of a divorce Petition out of the Principal Registry of the Family Division citing section 1(2)(b) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, viz. that the marriage had broken down irretrievably by reason of Mr Saatchi’s unreasonable behaviour.

The current turnaround time for the issuing and despatch of such a Petition is around 10 days, even if the Petition is served by the issuing solicitor.  I was recently refused permission to abridge this process even though there was a potential jurisdiction dispute.  I can only presume that Baroness Shackelton was more persuasive, and was able to persuade a Judge (although not the District Judge of the Day, for this role has been all but abolished) that this was an urgent case that ought to leapfrog other work.

The issued Petition would then have been served on Mr Saatchi.  Let us assume (once again) that he completed his Acknowledgement of Service promptly and returned this to his wife’s solicitor, and to the Court.  Let us assume that the Court did not lose any of this documentation, which happens with depressing frequency nowadays.  An application by Miss Lawson for decree nisi could then have been prepared and lodged with the Court.

Looking to my most recent experience, an application for decree nisi in an uncontested case made in mid-April resulted in a District Judge’s certificate confirming entitlement to a decree in mid-May.  The date for pronouncement of decree nisi was in mid-June.

Yes, that’s two months from application for to pronouncement of decree nisi.  The Petition, incidentally was issued in February, but the Respondent was less co-operative in that case than it would appear Mr Saatchi was.

In Ms Lawson’s case, decree nisi has been obtained in a very much shorter time, namely from about 12 July (the Friday following Mr Saatchi’s announcement that he intended to petition for divorce, allowing that week for Miss Lawson’s solicitor to issue, serve, receive an acknowledgement and then apply for decree nisi) to 31 July –some 19 days.

This is commendably swift, and must provide a degree of relief to the parties involved.  It would be in the interests of many of the users of the Principal Registry if they received similarly swift attention to their Petitions, even if their lives are not as glamorous or newsworthy as this couple’s.

I can only conclude that either Baroness Shackelton is able to accelerate the administration of proceedings through her undoubted dynamism or commitment to her clients, or that the element of celebrity in this case had an overwhelming effect upon the speed with which the wheels of justice turned.

With no disrespect intended to Baroness Shackleton, I rather suspect the latter…

In the present circumstances, where the Family Court Service is in crisis, where Legal Aid has been all but abolished for the majority of family cases and where practitioners despair of communicating with the Principal Registry, whether by letter, e-mail, fax, telephone call or even personal attendance, it is impressive to see what can be done when the stops are pulled out to accommodate the famous. 

It is a pity that it would appear that there is one standard of family justice emerging for the rich and influential, and another lesser standard for the rest. 

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