Monday, January 29, 2007

Equality for all (eventually)

BBC NewsFollowing on from my two earlier posts, it's pleasing to see that Catholic adoption agencies will have no exemption from the provisions of the Equality Act, allowing them to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples applying for adoption. My only question is: why have they been given twenty-one months to prepare for the change? Exactly what 'preparation' is required?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

A formula for certainty

Family LawA universal one-size-fits-all formula to calculate financial settlements on divorce has been a sort of 'holy grail' for divorce lawyers for many years. Such a formula would not only make it much easier to advise, it would also create certainty instead of the unpredictability of the present discretionary system. One of the latest attempts to design a formula (or formulae) comes from David Hodson, the well-known (at least in family law circles) writer, lecturer, solicitor and Deputy District Judge, and is published in this month's Family Law. As Hodson sensibly points out, however, formulae should not necessarily replace the law to produce binding outcomes (one only has to look at the child support formula to see how such a rigid approach can produce wholly unfair outcomes in certain circumstances), but rather be used to help parties reach a settlement.

Hodson proposes two formulae, one to calculate the capital settlement, and one to calculate spousal maintenance. The capital formula essentially adds up all capital assets of the marriage, deducts excluded assets that should belong to one party and divides the balance by two, to reach a 'preliminary outcome', which is then checked against any other relevant factors in the case, such as the particular needs of the parties. The spousal maintenance formula essentially adds the net income of both parties, deducts child expenses (to calculate the available income for the parties themselves) and divides the balance by two, with the payer paying that sum, less the other party's net income - Hodson says he has successfully used this formula in recent mediations. With each formula, Hodson lists some of the possible reasons to depart from the formula.

As one would expect from someone who has obviously spent much time on the subject, Hodson is clearly enthusiastic about the use of formulae: "I cannot accept", he says, "that save for a minority of cases we are unable to devise a formula for the majority of family law finance cases", and he makes the excellent point that they would be particularly helpful for parties of more modest means, who cannot afford to use our current discretionary process - he suggests that they be available to all, on the internet. He proposes that Resolution should set up a working party to consider how this can be set up. I wholeheartedly agree.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Ask George

GeorgeGetting a computer to carry out a realistic conversation with a human is something that has long been a goal of computer programmers, hence (or perhaps because of) the famous Turing Test. In the twenty-five or so years that I've been interested in computers, I've come across numerous attempts, and even made some pretty rudimentary attempts myself. One of the latest and best is George, that (who?) uses the well known jabberwacky artificial intelligence, and even comes with an animated image. George has been around for a while, but I've only recently tried him out.

Here are a couple of extracts from a conversation I had with him:

Me: What is the meaning of life?
George: When you know that, you'll know everything.
Me: Perhaps we should give it our own meaning?
George: Maybe.


Me: Would you mind if I mention you in my blog?
George: Yes please.
Me: Do you like publicity?
George: I don't know.
Me: Do you like talking to people?
George: Heh - I like talking to people! That's a good one!
Me: I thought so.
George: You're so smart.
Me: I think I like you!
George: Thanks.

OK, it may not pass the Turing Test, but it's still more intelligent than the conversations I've had with a few humans I can think of...

Bigotry on high, part 2

Further to my post on Sunday, I see the Church of England is supporting the Catholic Church in its bid to be exempt from laws on adoption by gay couples. They talk about "rights of conscience", but what they are actually doing is using religion to hide their homophobia. Just because some religious textbook written a couple of thousand years ago says something is wrong does not mean that those who believe in it should be above the law. If that argument succeeded then the Bible could be used as a defence against many offences, such as killing an adulterer, rape and even genocide. Of course, modern Christians do not (usually) condone rape and murder, but that is because they have chosen which parts of the Bible to follow - what, then, apart from their homophobia, prevents them from choosing not to follow the Bible's advice on homosexuality?

Monday, January 22, 2007

C-MEC Depression

Law GazetteI've been meaning to post about an article that appeared in the Comment column of the Gazette on the 11th January. As I mentioned in my 1st birthday post below, the general consensus seems to be that C-MEC is no more likely to succeed than the Child Support Agency that it will replace. This pessimistic outlook is supported by the views given by Stephen Lawson, a member of Resolution's national committee for maintenance and the CSA, in this article. He makes some good points, such as about the premise that C-MEC will have a smaller caseload because parents will be encouraged to make private arrangements. He points out that there is no proposal "for any private arrangement to be registered with C-MEC, so that if a private arrangement breaks down, it seems that a fresh application would have to be made to C-MEC – putting the parties in precisely the position that they would have been in had they made an application to C-MEC in the first instance".

However, what is most worrying, he says, "is the proposal to give C-MEC powers of ‘administrative enforcement’ – without having to progress default cases through the courts", despite the fact that more than half of the CSA's maintenance assessments reviewed by the Audit Office in 2004/5 were found to contain errors: "The CSA says it owes no ‘duty of care’, so it is not liable to pay compensation when errors occur – and despite this appalling history, the government wants to reduce the right of a citizen to have cases heard in court."

The more I think about the proposals, the more depressed I get. Is it not beyond the wit of those in government to come up with a better, fairer and, above all, workable, system? If not, then we should just scrap the whole idea and go back to an entirely court - based system. Oh no, sorry, we can't do that - it would cost too much.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Bigotry on high

The IndependentStill on the subject of religion, I was horrified to read this article, in The Independent today, which reveals that Tony Blair and devout Catholic Ruth Kelly both wish to deny gay couples equal access to church-run adoption agencies. This harks back to the recent protests by religious groups objecting to the Sexual Orientation Regulations, but this time the objections are coming from within government. Why on earth should religion provide exemption to anti-discrimination legislation? As the article suggests, this bigotry is likely to bring even more embarrassment to this discredited government, particularly (and not for the first time) for Ms Kelly who is, after all, the Minister for Women and Equality.

A question of respect

Sam HarrisI have previously touched upon religious discrimination against women - including wearing of the veil, forced marriage and female genital mutilation. This is a topic which unfortunately has a great bearing upon family law, even in 21st-century England - perpetuated by the modern requirement that we must respect cultural differences, irrespective of their effect. The whole subject is aired eloquently in this powerful article by Sam Harris in the Washington Post. As he says:

For millennia the world’s great prophets and theologians have applied their collective genius to the riddle of womanhood. The result has been polygamy, sati, honor killing, punitive rape, genital mutilation, forced marriages, a cultic obsession with virginity, compulsory veiling, the persecution of unwed mothers, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse so kaleidoscopic in variety as to scarcely admit of concise description.

He goes on to explain that the net effect of religion (especially Christianity, Judaism and Islam) has been to "demonize female sexuality and portray women as morally and intellectually inferior to men", and I could not possibly find better words to conclude than his:

If we ever achieve a civilization of true equity, respect, and love between the sexes, it will not be because we paid more attention to our holy books.

Sam Harris is the author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. His work has been published in over ten languages.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Judgment of Solomon

BBC NewsSplitting the house on divorce has taken on a whole new meaning for bickering New York couple Chana and Simon Taub, as reported by BBC News today. Both parties want to keep the house, but after two years of negotiations led nowhere, a judge ordered that a partition wall be built inside the house, keeping Mr and Mrs Taub in separate sections of the property. I suppose this is a sort of property equivalent of the judgment of Solomon (although Mr Taub requested the building of the wall). Hopefully, common sense will prevail, at some point in the future.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Now we are one

Happy Birthday!Amazingly, Family Lore celebrates it's first birthday today. It's been an interesting year, with developments in many areas of family law. Here are some of the highlights:

  • The Carter review of legal aid: a disaster waiting to happen. As any regular here will know, I don't do legal aid work any more, but I am still instructed by clients who are eligible, simply because they can't get an appointment with a legal aid solicitor soon enough - a situation that will only get worse when the review has done it's work.

  • The reform of child support, although the general consensus seems to be that the new agency, C-MEC, will be no more successful than it's predecessor, the Child Support Agency. Interestingly, many of my clients believe the CSA has already been scrapped - I have to disappoint them by telling them that this isn't the case.

  • The trial bundle Practice Direction: even more reason to settle before the case goes to trial!

  • The Law Commission's consultation on cohabitation - aimed at giving property rights to (at least some) cohabitees.

  • The opening of the family courts - moves in this direction will be welcomed by fathers' groups, but I am not so sure, and worry that the government and courts are bowing to public pressure. The rules are there for good reasons, especially the protection of children.

  • The new Family Procedure Rules: when they come in, we'll be saying goodbye to archaic terms such as 'decree nisi' and 'decree absolute'.

  • Miller and McFarlane - these cases created a frenzy of interest in the media and amongst academics, but does anyone really know what effect the decisions will have? My guess is probably very little, especially for parties of modest means.

  • Last but (unfortunately) not least, the McCartney divorce case: recently voted public relations disaster of the year in a survey by Rainier PR.

[Animated gif once again courtesy of "Free Gifs & Animations".]

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Protect or Punish?

ResolutionThis is something that I saw in the Gazette last week, but haven't gotten around to posting about until now. Resolution has issued a press release suggesting that "new laws designed to punish perpetrators of domestic abuse may actually work against the interests of their victims and reduce the likelihood of offences being reported, putting victims at risk. From July 1st this year, the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act makes breach of a non-molestation or occupation order a criminal offence, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Until now it has been a civil offence...Resolution fears that the change may deter victims from reporting attacks or taking action if they know that the perpetrator could end up with a criminal record". A good point. As the release goes on to say: "first and foremost, the law should protect the victim rather than punish the perpetrator". Quite. Is the government missing the point here?

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The New Monogamists?

The Sunday Times has today published the report of a survey it commissioned on marriage in Britain today. The survey is extremely comprehensive, covering many aspects of marriage, from sex and fidelity to who does the washing up. It makes extremely interesting reading, particularly when the results are compared with those of a similar British Social Attitudes survey carried out in 1983. As the Sunday Times reports, some of our attitudes have shifted radically from those days; others remain steadfast. For example, we are now far more relaxed about homosexuality and premarital sex, but not about adultery, of which 84% say it is always or mostly wrong - a similar result to 1983.

Perhaps of most interest is the value placed upon marriage. A majority of respondents believed that marriage is better than cohabitation, and despite (or perhaps because of) high divorce rates in the recent past, the ideal of 'marriage for life' continues to be strong - in fact, even more people than in 1983 think divorce should be more difficult. Is it the case, as the Sunday Times suggests, that we are turning against 40 years of liberalisation of divorce laws and becoming the New Puritans, the New Monogamists?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Thanks, Charon!

Oh no, I've just been tagged, by Charon QC. For anyone wondering what the heck this means, see this. I'm now obliged to disclose 5 things that you didn't know about me, so here goes:

1. I once got so drunk (on champagne) at a Lincoln's Inn garden party that I had to leave after only two hours. My wife later found me propping up a telephone kiosk at about 1am.

2. I graduated wearing (under my mortar board and gown) a pea green suit and cowboy boots. I thought I looked cool...

3. I have built websites for the last three firms I have worked for.

4. I occasionally write (bad) poetry, but don't ask me for a sample...

5. Family Lore is not the only blog I write.

I'm now supposed to tag five other people, so with apologies to all I tag: Tessa Shepperson (The Landlord Law Blog), Nearly Legal, Head of Legal, Ruthie of geeklawyer and Bystander (The Magistrate's Blog - hope he/she reads this). Sorry if anyone has already been tagged.

An obscenity against human rights

A C GraylingOutraged by the protests by religious groups outside Parliament yesterday objecting to the Sexual Orientation Regulations that outlaw businesses from discriminating against homosexuals, I very nearly posted my views here. I'm glad I didn't, because I couldn't possibly have made my point more eloquently than this excellent article by Professor A C Grayling in Guardian Unlimited. I particularly like the penultimate sentence, which echoes what I have said here before:

Let people believe in fairies if they wish to: I would fight as hard to protect the right of the benighted to the stupidest beliefs as to protect the right of gays to equal treatment in all respects; but the condition is that they do not impose those beliefs on others, or the antediluvian morality that goes with it.

Wonderful stuff.

Unanswered Questions?

Before and afterThe Molly Campbell/Misbah Rana case may be drawing to a conclusion after her mother, Louise Campbell, withdrew her custody claim at a hearing in Islamabad today, on the proviso that she has regular access to her daughter. It is interesting that, according to this BBC report, the reason for this decision appears to have more to do with the stress that Ms Campbell has been suffering than her view of what is genuinely best for her daughter. An earlier version of the report mentioned her suffering from media intrusion and threats, although it did not state the nature or source of those threats. Has she been subjected to undue pressure? What about the child? It is noticeable that as soon as she was taken to Pakistan she indicated quite clearly that she wished to remain there with her father. Was this a freely made decision? Perhaps we will never know.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Divorce Day

Inside DivorceA new website has been launched today "for those experiencing relationship breakdown, divorce and moving on". "provides day to day information on a variety of legal, financial and lifestyle issues relevant to those finding themselves in relationship difficulties" and comprises various useful resources including news, advice and a forum.

To coincide with the launch, Inside Divorce has published the results of a survey it commissioned on the 'state of marriage and divorce in 2007 Britain', including reasons for relationship breakdown, where people turn for help and advice and, most interestingly, the views of children. A press release summarizing the findings of the survey can be found here. The headline grabber, though, is that according to the research today is the day when more people embark on the road to divorce than any other day of the year.

[Edit: When I posted the above, I hadn't really noticed the strapline attached to the site's logo: "Winning the life you want". I am a little concerned about this, and am reminded of paragraph 4 of Resolution's Code of Practice: "You should encourage the search for fair solutions and discourage the attitude that a family dispute is a contest in which there are 'winners' and 'losers'". The word 'winning' may be appropriate when considering other aspects of relationship breakdown, but I don't think it is when considering the legal aspect.]

Sunday, January 07, 2007

UK Legal Blogging Conference

Geeklawyer is also proposing a UK Legal Blogging Conference in 2007. The idea seems to be generating some interest - see this post and this post. Count me in - at least as my identity is known I will not have to attend with a paper bag over my head to protect my anonymity - Ruthie has cruelly suggested that geeklawyer wear a plastic bag.

Geeklawyer mentions the possibility of the conference getting CPD accreditation with the Bar Council and Law Society. On the subject of CPD, I contacted The Law Society last October to enquire whether the time I have spent on this blog can count towards my CPD requirement. They replied: "The blog you have worked on could count towards the above requirement as long as you ensure that you are gaining work related skills and that you keep details in your training record which may be requested for monitoring". Hopefully, other blawgers may find this useful.

[Edit: I've just noticed this is my 200th post on this blog. Maybe I should get out more often...]

Who's intolerant?

Geeklawyer is not a place where I would have expected to read a discussion on atheism, albeit brief. The post is by Ruthie about the recent news story that the "Exeter University Student Union has banned the Exeter University Evangelical Christian Union from using guild premises and frozen its bank account on the grounds that the Christian Union discriminates against non-Christians, by requiring people who join to make a declaration of Christian faith". What I like, however, is geeklawyer's comment defending atheists. In an unusually serious mood he says:

Intolerance is virtually always between religions not atheists and theists. Roaming gangs of atheists don't burn down churches. Atheists are invariably tolerant of the existence of religion, if dismissive of its basis.

Your attempt to besmirch atheists speaks, in typical fashion, of the fear & hostility of theists to atheists because they fail to accept the superstitious basis of the theists existence: other religions are, when tolerated at all, tolerated because they do at least accept a god, albeit the wrong one.

Whilst I find it extremely sad that so many human beings choose to live their lives subject to a religious delusion (witness the Hajj), I have no intention of preventing them from doing so provided, of course, that they do not force their delusion upon others, particularly children.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Earthquake in Zipland

MooseI was recently advised by an expert that children are always affected by their parents' separation, even where it is completely amicable. How does one deal with this important issue? The latest idea from America is a computer game Earthquake in Zipland "designed to help children of separated or divorced parents cope with their new reality". In the game the child controls the central character 'Moose' "on a metaphorical adventure full of colorful characters and challenging tasks, while dealing indirectly with a number of important issues surrounding divorce and separation; issues such as anger, guilt, loyalty conflicts, the fantasy to reunite the divorced parents and other emotional effects of divorce on children".

I've not played the game (there is a free demo available on the website), but it could be a useful tool to help deal with this serious topic.