Further signs that life might be at least be on the starting blocks of a return to ‘normal’ have come in recent days.
There was news from The Lord Chancellor of the opening of 10 ‘Nightingale Courts’, rapidly set up to tackle the impact of coronavirus on the justice system. Understandably there has been some debate surrounding the locations chosen. Time will tell how successful these courts will be in addressing backlogs. Those working in family law need no reminders that ‘queues’ and delays had existed long before the pandemic.
And there was a Cafcass announcement that 17 of its offices would open towards the end of July, so that its Family Court Advisers can safely meet with children to understand their needs, wishes and feelings, and enable them to make recommendations to courts.
This all comes at a time, the school summer holiday, when many family dispute resolution practitioners are used to a slight lull in workload – sometimes enabling them to re-gird loins before an upsurge comes again in September. That has traditionally been the pattern for our mediators. Rather in the way that family disputes can resurface and boil over at Christmas – leading to January ‘Divorce Month’ – so we have found that the long break from school has been a final straw for many relationships, triggering more clients approaching us.
This year looks like it could be very different. At the time of writing, the demand for family mediation appointments, which sank on lockdown but has crept up and then rocketed since May, shows no sign of abating. And my feeling is that even though for months the country hasn’t had ‘normal’ schooling routines, this six-week break will add extra pressures on hard-pressed families, many already facing mounting financial challenges.
I’ve mentioned before the experience of China, and that the easing of pandemic measures was followed by an increase in divorce applications. A similar pattern has been reported from Australia. This seems likely to happen here, and I suspect it may begin to show even sooner than in the ‘traditional’ month of September.
People have been delaying taking life-changing choices but now, with restrictions easing, our experience tells us they are finding it harder to kick those extremely difficult decisions into the long grass.
News stories telling us that estate agents’ business is again perking up could be a further sign, with couples actively considering their future living arrangements, having accepted their relationship is broken.
Lockdown meant people felt there was little they could do to significantly influence their own lives – try to move house, or look to change job, for example. But now as restrictions ease there seem to be fewer ways to put these things off, and that includes divorce. As I write, across the country many unhappy couples are blowing the dust off a separation process they suspended earlier in the year.
We will also in time see with great interest what impact the introduction of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act will have on the experiences of those in dispute, and those of all professionals helping affected people navigate their way through the processes.
Our mediators have been agile throughout the past few months, mediating by video conference for example, and they stand ready for the challenges ahead.