EU referendum—implications for family law

The UK has voted to leave the EU: what will be the immediate consequences, and longer term considerations, for family lawyers and their clients. Michael Wells-Greco, partner at Charles Russell Speechlys, and Nigel Shepherd, National Chair of Resolution and head of family at Mills & Reeve offer their insight.

What will be the immediate impact of the vote to leave?

Michael Wells-Greco (MWG): The UK has two years to make its divorce settlement on its departure from the EU but that is completely separate from any framework agreement for longer-term future arrangements with the EU. The question to be asked is whether the divorce will be an elegant disengagement or messy? A major change, or withdrawal from the EU instruments relevant to family law, risks disruption, considerable confusion and years of uncertainty. This is particularly problematic given that family law is rarely a legislative priority, and at a time in the UK when the availability of legal aid has been greatly reduced.

Nigel Shepherd (NS): It's too early to know the full implications for family law, but what is clear is that we are entering a period of great uncertainty. Like most areas of legislation, family law in the UK is currently intrinsically linked to that in other jurisdictions. There are also wider issues not directly related to family law. Should a short-term impact on the financial markets turn into a longer-term economic issue then it will affect people's personal finances, things like pensions, investments, and house values. These will all need to be taken into consideration when dealing with financial matters upon divorce.

What might be the longer term implications?

MWG: As EU law had permeated family law and practice across the EU, families will be asking whether they can continue to benefit from EU rules in relation to enforcement of matrimonial orders (divorce, separation) and parental responsibility orders (residence and contact). Some may be advised to take pre-emptive steps now rather than wait for the uncertainty following the two year withdrawal.

NS: We won't know yet what withdrawal from the EU will mean for measures like Brussels IIa, which provides for uniform jurisdictional rules for divorce proceedings; or maintenance arrangements, which are currently regulated throughout the European Union. It's unlikely that the implications for family law will be a priority for the government, and it's a distinct possibility that any currently planned or envisaged reforms to family law will be put on hold. Resolution will continue our work with government and others to both influence the future of family justice, and provide our members with the support, information and resources they need in order to deal with the post-referendum landscape.

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