Alfresco sex, compulsive loo-roll eating and pet-nups… welcome to the world of Family Law
We ask Sarah Ward – divorce and family law specialist at our new Expert in Residence, Samuel Phillips Law – the hard-hitting questions
By Becky Hardy
Has lockdown affected the types of cases you work with?
It’s not all doom and gloom – lockdown has had a positive impact on many relationships. A simpler way of life and quality time together has meant that a handful of my clients have reconciled during lockdown, which is wonderful. The lockdown lovebirds!
But for many others, the pandemic has exemplified pre-existing problems, as any forced period of time together often does, such as at Christmas or during summer holidays. So I have seen a huge surge in divorce enquiries during lockdown.
What about the reasons for divorce – have they changed?
A significant number have been due to the discovery of an affair. With curbs on movements, those in long-term affairs haven’t been able to use late nights at the office or business trips to explain their absence. Many have taken more risks – in one case, this involved alfresco sex. They were spotted by a passing police officer and both returned home to their spouses in a state of undress. Awkward.
With limited opportunities for physical meet-ups, affairs (as with everything else) moved online. There’s been a notable increase in ‘virtual infidelity’, but living in such close proximity to one another means it’s often found out.
And are there any, slightly stranger reasons for divorce that have come to light?!
Generally, lockdown has made behaviours more difficult to hide. I have had clients unearthing various addictions – porn, alcohol and shopping being the most common – which have been the catalyst to divorce. But there have been other, rather bizarre discoveries too; a husband who was drinking his wife’s nail varnish, and a wife who ate loo roll both spring to mind! And this was at a time when loo rolls were in short supply, don’t forget! That was actually cited as the reason for the divorce in the petition.
A big conversation we’ve had during the pandemic has been around domestic violence.
The pandemic has been a dangerous time. For many, they’ve found themselves in abusive relationships for the first time. An increase in alcohol consumption at home has most certainly had its part to play. Because of the pandemic, couples are spending more time behind closed doors and, for those in relationships with narcissists, it’s been simply horrific. Feeling vulnerable, scared and overwhelmed, they’ve needed to plan and implement an exit strategy and that’s where l have been able to help.
How can you and Samuel Phillips help?
A permitted reason to leave your home is to escape domestic violence. But for many, that is simply not practical. Where the abuser refuses to leave, the other person can obtain an Occupation Order. This is an emergency application made to the Court, without notice to the abuser. The result is a Court Order requiring the abuser to leave the home and not being allowed to return, usually for 12 months (although this can be extended).
I’ve made more applications for Occupation Orders during lockdown than I’ve made in my entire career – which is alarming in itself. They have all been successful. The Court have dealt with the applications extremely quickly, usually the same day. It’s been so rewarding to help those who have been suffering. But I do fear the rise of domestic violence is a pandemic within this pandemic. Many are yet to seek help.
What about those in happier relationships who want to live together – what advice would you give to them?
Despite what many believe, living together doesn’t give you the same rights as a married couple. If the relationship breaks down, there’s very little protection for the weaker financial party, typically the woman, who often is the primary carer for children.
As the law stands, the only solution for cohabiting couples who want legal protection if they split up is to get married, enter a civil partnership or draw up a cohabitation agreement – also known a living together agreement or a ‘no-nup’.
This quite simply sets out who owns what and how a couple will divide everything if the relationship breaks down. It may sound terribly unromantic, but being realistic at the outset can save costly legal disputes if a couple does split up.
What about pre-nups – are they just for the rich and famous?
Pre-nuptial agreements are most commonly associated with the rich and famous and, if newspaper reports are to be believed, are worthless, unfair and unromantic. In actual fact, they can be a sensible and fair way to set out how the assets will be divided if a couple were to divorce. They’re becoming increasingly popular amongst us non-celebrities with modest assets.
The lesser-known post-nuptial agreement is also increasing in popularity. I’ve seen a marked increase in the uptake of post-nups during lockdown – presumably as couples have had more time to put their financial affairs in order.
Why do you think both pre- and post-nups are becoming more popular now?
They’re becoming less stigmatised. Now, particularly due to people marrying later in life or more than once, nuptial agreements are somewhat routine, like making a Will. It doesn’t mean couples don’t love each other. I liken it to travel insurance for a holiday – we love our holidays and, at the time of booking them, we fully intend to go, but we still take out insurance just in case.
And, for those many couples who’ve acquired a pet during lockdown, there’s also a ‘pet-nup’, which allows you to record who gets to keep the dog!
If your relationships have been affected by lockdown – for better or for worse – Samuel Phillips can offer initial advice in the strictest of confidence. To find out more, visit their website or Facebook page.