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Queen’s Speech 2015 – Thoughts from a family lawyer

Date:29 MAY 2015
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The Government’s legislative plans for the year ahead have been unveiled in the Queen’s Speech to Parliament on 27 May 2015 but despite the importance of such an event, many of the headlines in the newspapers were taken up with the arrest of Fifa officials.

The Queen’s Speech marked the first purely conservative legislative programme for almost 20 years in which Mr Cameron adopted a one nation approach: 'helping working people get on; supporting aspiration'. What possible consequences might this have on a family lawyer’s field of work?

Human Rights Act

Is it indicative of the fragility of the Commons majority that the plan to replace Labour’s Human Rights Act with a new British Bill of Rights has been delayed and did not form part of the Queen’s Speech? The Speech stopped short of a legislative plan to scrap the HRA but it did confirm the government plans to present proposals for reform.

The Human Rights Act implements the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law. UK courts are bound by the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. The Conservative view appears to have been that a number of ECHR decisions have expanded the scope of human rights beyond what was intended. Recent examples include voting rights for prisoners and prevention of deportation of foreign nationals who have committed serious crimes.

Introducing a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities’ would break the link between British courts and the ECHR. They would indeed be radical reforms that would impact on our work if, as had been proposed by Chris Grayling, the former Tory justice secretary, they give UK courts the final say in interpreting international rights laws and for the UK to leave the European Convention on Human Rights altogether if the Council of Europe objected.

There is a lack of detail but the Conservative Policy Document published in October 2014 indicates an intention that there may not be radical changes for human rights law in the UK but judgments of the ECHR would be deemed advisory only.

EU Referendum Bill

David Cameron has promised to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the 28 member bloc and to put an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership to a public vote by 2017. The question that will be asked is 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?' 

A special role in harmonising family and child law in Europe has been attributed to the Council of Europe founded in Strasbourg in 1949. With conventions and recommendations it does influence family law in Member States and there could be profound implications for our work. What would be the future of cross-border EU cases? What of the right to respect of family life?

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National Insurance Contributions and Finance Bill

This is designed to enact a series of tax pledges made by the Conservatives during the general election campaign. Of note was:
  • No rise in income tax rates, VAT or national insurance before 2020.
  • No one working 30 hours on the minimum wage would pay any income tax at all.
  • A commitment to raise the threshold before which people pay income tax to £12,500.
In any family proceedings involving financial claims one looks long and hard at the net effect of any settlement. In cases where the resources are limited and 'need' is the prominent feature, the net effect of the division of income can be very finely balanced so the impact of taxation needs to be considered. It is an unusual move to enshrine the tax freeze in law and all eyes turn to George Osborne in July to see what if any tax reliefs are restricted or tax thresholds not uprated following this plan for a ban on increases.

Childcare Bill

A Bill which includes measures to help working people by greatly increasing the provision of free childcare. Parents in England would be entitled to 30 hours per week of free childcare for their 3 and 4-year-olds for 38 weeks of the year under these proposals. Under current legislation parents are entitled to 15 hours each week over a 38-week period.

The measures announced in the Queen’s Speech only apply to England because responsibility for childcare is devolved to national governments. Frequently following the breakdown of a family relationship, the question arises as to the earning capacity of one party to the relationship and the impact on that earning capacity of having children for whom child care remains a live issue. Mr Cameron has previously commented on the unsatisfactory situation 'where couples were spending as much on childcare as one of them took home in earnings' and 'for many second earners, work didn’t pay because the cost of childcare was so high'. The issue of working post a divorce made the headlines earlier this year when Wright v Wright [2015] EWCA Civ 201 was decided in the Court of Appeal. The wife was refused permission to appeal a downward variation of a periodical payments order. The lower court’s earlier observations were: 'There is a general expectation in these courts that once a child is in year 2, most mothers can consider part time work consistent with their obligation to their children.'

Immigration Bill

This is designed to support working people, clamp down on illegal immigration and protect public services.

The Queen’s Speech itself was restricted to breaking news on the expectation of a new immigration bill over the coming year. A Home office briefing reports that the three main goals of such a bill would be:
  • stopping immigrants accessing services they are not entitled to;
  • making it easier to remove people from the UK and harder for people to prolong their stay; and
  • foreign nationals who commit serious crimes shall, except in extraordinary circumstances, be deported.
Under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Coalition new powers were announced to enable the Home office to tackle sham marriages – the idea being that all proposed marriages and civil partnerships involving a non EEA national with limited or no immigration status in the UK were to be referred to registrars to the Home Office.

Beware sham marriages for immigration purposes which continue to hit the headlines – the latest appears to be the case of Babar Khan who spent £4,600 on a sham marriage to a woman he barely knew, at a marriage ceremony held in front of two guests. The couple gave the police 'wildly conflicting' accounts when questioned and Babar struggled to spell his bride’s name.

Family lawyers are accustomed to change and adapt well – the Single Family Court in April 2014, Children and Families Act 2014 and Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 to name just a few. So many of the proposed new laws were promised by the Conservatives during the general election campaign that they cannot be said to be a surprise to us and we await the new budget to be announced on 8 July 2015 with interest.