One of the unintended consequences of the Family Division being prepared to conduct so much of our cases remotely is that it has extended the working day, writes Louise Barretto, Head of our Family Law team.
It might surprise many readers how quickly the Court was prepared to accept online working during the lockdown caused by COVID-19, but as cases began to back up, to the credit of the UK Judiciary the flexible approach has surprised us all.
It was also quite a surprise to read Sir Andrew McFarlane, who is President of the Family Division of the High Court – and the most senior family court judge in England and Wales, saying earlier this month that this backlog of cases would not be cleared by people working “beyond reasonable capacity”.
His statement was widely reported: “The degree to which work, including Court hearings and the transmission of emails, now takes place without any regard to the confines of a normal working day has become a matter of very significant concern in the context of our individual and collective wellbeing,” said Sir Andrew.
“Prior to the advent of remote working, it was simply not possible to hold a Court hearing before 9am because the Court buildings were not open.
“Neither was it possible to appear in one Court for a case management hearing, before starting a full hearing in another Court many miles away 45 minutes later.
“Now it is possible to achieve these and many similar additions to the working day via a computer; but just because we can, does not mean that it is right to do so.”
He added: “The pressure of work in the Courts, and the backlog of cases, are matters that concern the system as a whole.
“They will not be resolved by individuals working beyond reasonable capacity, but by increased resources and strategic, system-wide changes in the way cases are dealt with.”
Life during the pandemic has also led many of us to think about the mortality of family and friends for the first time. Thousands of elderly, vulnerable and frail people have already fallen victim to the virus, while for others, their loved ones may already be receiving end of life care due to other medical reasons.
In these cases, a last minute marriage, for some, a ‘death bed marriage’ may be one way for couples to show their commitment during their last few days. As part of the special and emergency Registrar General’s Licence, people can get married or enter a civil partnership (including same sex couples) anywhere, 24 hours a day where one person is seriously ill, not expected to recover and can’t be moved to a place registered for marriage.
As such, the wedding can take place in care homes, hospitals, private homes and hospices, even on the same day of the application. They’re legally valid in the same way as other marriages, although you need to apply via your local registrar office and certain conditions need to be met.
‘Death bed marriages’ have increased in the three years to 2019. In 2017, there were 575 marriages solemnised by a Registrar General’s Licence, increasing to 624 in 2018 and 661 in 2019. So far in 2020, there have been 375 death bed marriages, according to these figures reported in Your Money.
As my colleagues in our Private Client team have frequently suggested here writing a will, and organising your estate is something everyone should do, regardless of the assets you think you will be leaving behind.
This recent annual study into the behaviours of 2,000 UK consumers showed that despite strong interest in the subject, a significant minority of them still feel estate planning, is not something for them because of the small size of their estate and the view that end of life planning only means making a will.
“Only 25% of consumers have undertaken any of the actions normally associated with estate planning, like making gifts to loved one, gifting a home to children etc. This is less than the 35% which have made a will: for almost half of consumers estate planning is associated only with making a will. Consumers who have taken any estate planning action tend to own estates which have a much greater value compared with consumers who have not acted: in other words, wealthier consumers are more likely to have acted compared with less affluent consumers.
“Around one-third of consumers say COVID-19 has made them think more seriously about what would happen if they died.
Sir Andrew’s advice about planning work sensibly equally applies to living sensibly too. Now that the government has introduced legislation allowing people to witness wills remotely, the same difficulties with people wanting to marry remotely have been overcome.
The above is accurate as at 11 February 2021. The information above may be subject to change during these ever-changing times.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case by case basis.