A Swindon family lawyer says there has been a worrying drop off in divorce inquiries during lockdown.
Natalee Worthington, of Worthingtons Family Law, believes lockdown is putting stress on couples trapped at home together and means women and men, who may be victims of domestic violence, are lacking an opportunity to call their solicitors and seek advice.
At the same time, Natalee, who is based at Rombourne, in West Swindon, said she is seeing an increase in cases involving children, as lockdown has led to confusion over custody arrangements.
“People who might have had some release by going out to work, or seeing their friends are now stuck at home with an abusive partner or in a relationship that has broken down. Often their movements are already restricted in a domestic violence relationship, and this has now become so much worse,” said Natalee.
“They may want to get out of their situation, or to look into divorce, but they are lacking the opportunity to get in touch with a solicitor. Even if they are unhappy in the marriage and it has broken down, to add the extra stress of a divorce now seems a step too far, so they are delaying.”
An estimated 1.6 million women and 786,000 men experienced domestic abuse in England and Wales in the year ending March 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics. Experts predict that the incidence of domestic abuse could increase by as much as 20% as a result of the pandemic.
Recently, Boots pharmacies announced safe spaces were being created where people living with domestic abuse could access help. The move came in recognition of the difficulty people face of being able to escape their abusive partners to make a phone call or seek help. The Government has also promised an extra £2m for domestic abuse helplines, to support people affected by the crime during coronavirus lockdown.
By contrast, Natalee has found enquiries about children cases have increased, particularly in relation to passing between parents’ houses during lockdown. Government guidance says children can pass between houses, but the parents have parental responsibility and therefore must prioritise their children’s wellbeing. If one parent is symptomatic, or someone they live with is, then it may not be in the child’s best interests to follow their usual contact routine. Alternative interim arrangements should be agreed between the parents, such as via video chat, until the direct contact can be reinstated.
“We have cases, for example, where a child has a parent who is on the list of those who need to self-isolate for several weeks, or who has been unwell, and the other parent doesn’t want the child to be with that parent. If there is already a court order in place, parents are calling me with concerns about breaching the order if they change the child arrangements.”
Natalee offers a free initial consultation and during lockdown can meet clients by video or talk to them on the phone. She also offers flexible hours, so people can get in touch when the opportunity arises.
She added: “I’d urge people to take action now rather than later, particularly if they are in a situation where they are at risk. Courts are still sitting, and work is still being done. If people are in danger, they should access domestic violence charities or the police without delay.
“Even if people aren’t ready to go ahead with a separation now, we could talk through their options about what they can do after lockdown and this might give them some peace of mind in the meantime.”
Natalee’s growing caseload includes clients who are divorcing, including the resolution of their financial settlements; dealing with child arrangements; resolving disputes surrounding property for separating unmarried couples; creating pre-nuptial and cohabitation agreements; dealing with changes of surname for children; and domestic violence.