We are a friendly and efficient team of family law solicitors who combine legal expertise with an understanding and compassionate manner.

Our aim is to help you avoid the expense, stress and emotional upheaval of the Court process where possible and to guide you through the Court process when all other options have been explored.

While relationship breakdown is an increasingly common fact of life, it doesn’t make the experience any easier to deal with.

That is why it is invaluable to have the support of experienced family law solicitors who offer calm, detached, professional advice, helping you look after your interests in the long term.

Access all the family advice you need under one roof.

Divorce

We offer a sensitive and understanding approach when dealing with divorce following the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage or the dissolution of a civil partnership.

Our Family Law department will provide you with support and help you reach the best outcome. We understand that you will require support and guidance through the legal procedures from the very first meeting to the conclusion of your case.

In terms of procedure, the divorce itself is usually straightforward. However, the related issues such as the division of the financial resources and parenting arrangements can be more complex and require specialist advice.

“How do I get a divorce?”

The procedure itself is fairly straightforward, however, you will need to be aware of the following points:

There is an automatic bar to divorce in the first year after marriage

The divorce will be based on the ground which is the Irretrievable Breakdown of the marriage, supported by one of the following five facts:

Adultery

Unreasonable behaviour

Separation for two years, with consent

Desertion

Separation for five years, without consent

The person applying for the divorce is called the Petitioner and the other party is the Respondent. If you are the Petitioner you will need to provide us with the original Marriage Certificate or a certified copy, which we will send to the Court with your Petition and the fee (currently £410). We can obtain a certified copy of your Marriage Certificate if you have lost or misplaced the original. We can include a claim for your costs of the divorce from the other party when issuing the Divorce Peition and this will be decided by the Judge at the Decree Nisi or Conditional Order stage. The costs allowable will be approximately two thirds of the actual costs incurred by you in relation to the divorce itself. (This does not include any costs which you may incur in relation to the matrimonial finances or arrangements for your children). The general rule is that costs will be allowable on condition that the Judge is satisfied that the applicant is entitled to an Order for Costs e.g. the divorce must have been caused by the Respondent's behaviour.

In order to protect your position we will also consider whether it is appropriate to delay making an application for the final decree of divorce (the Decree Absolute or Final Order) until the financial aspects are resolved.

We can also assist you if you are served with divorce papers. We will advise you on the merits of filing a defence (called an "answer") or issuing a Cross Petition if you do not accept all of the allegations within the Petition, or simply completing the Acknowledgement of Service of the Petition, which will allow the Petition to proceed on an undefended basis. We can also advise you how to respond to any claim for costs that have been made in the Petition.

Finances in divorce

Our specialist lawyers can help you receive what you are entitled to.

“How will the divorce affect me financially?”

Dealing with the financial aspects of the divorce can be stressful, but our practical legal advice can help.

Faced with relationship breakdown, many people feel powerless to resolve the problems that arise and one of the most pressing concerns is how to achieve a fair financial settlement.

We will invest the time to understand your unique personal circumstances, so that we can explore the best strategy to find a solution that suits your particular circumstances.

There may be a need for an immediate application to the Court so you can obtain interim maintenance payments from your spouse (Maintenance Pending Suit) to provide you with financial support during the divorce process.

We can also advise you on the level of maintenance you can claim for the support of any children of the family through the Child Maintenance Service, if necessary.

You may need advice on whether or not the Family Court would order a sale of the family home or other assets. We can help you understand how a Court would establish your housing and future income needs.

Your pension or your spouse's pension may well be the most valuable asset of the marriage. We work closely with pension actuaries to make sure you receive what you are entitled to from the family pensions and to assess whether or not a pension sharing order is appropriate.

Once we have collated all the financial information and supporting documents disclosed by both parties we can offer an informed opinion as to what you are entitled to and we can begin negotiations with your spouse or his/her solicitors and we will assist you in reaching a settlement that can then be drawn up in to a Consent Order which we will ask a Judge of the Family Court to approve and seal.

You may wish to make an application for the Court to deal with the finances because you feel strongly that a negotiated agreement will not be possible. The rules require that you attend at least one session of mediation although that does not need to be in the presence of your spouse. You do not have to attend mediation if you fall within one of the exempted categories. We can advise you if this applies to you.

If the mediator determines that the case is not suitable for mediation, we can then apply to the Family Court which will issue a timetable for steps which must be taken by both parties. In the absence of an agreement of the financial claims, at the conclusion of the final hearing the District Judge will make a final Order which will be binding on both parties. There will be ample opportunity to reach a settlement with your spouse before the final hearing.

Arrangements for children

Our team of family lawyers have considerable experience in dealing with the many disputes relating to arrangements for children which may arise following the breakdown of a relationship. We will support you every step of the way, whether your issues are resolved at the mediation stage or have to be decided by the Court.

Some of the most important difficulties which need to be resolved following a family breakdown involve the arrangements that are to be made for any children of the family and the parenting of those children. The issues which commonly need to be dealt with include with whom the children are to live and how much time they are to spend with each parent and when and where they see other important people in their lives, such as their grandparents, extended family and friends.

The Court has the power to make a Child Arrangements Order which can decide these matters as well as other issues, such as which school the child attends. We can also advise parents who wish to take the child or children abroad to settle in a different country or parents who wish to prevent such a move being made.

The Orders the Court has the power to make include:-

Parental Responsibility Orders which includes "all the rights, duties, powers, responsibilities and authority which by law a parent of a child has in relation to the child and his property";

Child Arrangements Orders which can decide with whom and where a child will live and with whom the child will have contact;

Specific Issue Orders allow a Court to decide a specific question about a child's welfare which may involve schooling, relocation or health and medical matters; and

Prohibited Steps Orders allow a Court to prevent a person from doing a specific act that they are doing when exercising parental responsibility.

“How do I apply for a Child Arrangements Order?”

Before you can apply to the Court you are required to attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting ("MIAM") unless you fall within one of the exemptions. A trained Mediator will help you to consider the best interests of the child (or children) and will draw up a timetable setting out the time the child will spend with each parent and the child's extended family if you are able to reach an agreement.

Examples of the exemptions to the requirement to make a referral to mediation are evidence of domestic violence or there is no mediator available within 15 miles of the applicant. If mediation fails, or if one party simply does not cooperate, the mediator will sign a form to that effect which will enable an application to the Court to be made.


“What can I expect from the Court?”

At the first appointment at Court, the District Judge will give directions which must be complied with. "Directions" might typically include a list of For example a Cafcass (Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service) report may be ordered which will require a qualified Cafcass officer to look into the family circumstances including, if appropriate, obtaining the wishes and feelings of the children. Other directions may include requiring the parties to make statements setting out the facts that are relevant to their case.

Separation

If you are married, you can separate simply by leaving your spouse and do not need to make any formal legal arrangement. However, it is a good idea to reach agreement on key issues such as who will look after any children and what the financial arrangements will be, and to set them down in a Separation Agreement or Deed of Separation.

There are many couples who decide not to divorce but to separate formally, but you should carefully consider your options with a solicitor.

Care needs to be taken before signing any document as this separation as this could be relied upon by your spouse if a divorce takes place at a later date. A Court will not be bound by the terms of any Separation Agreement but it will carry significant weight.

Only marriages which have lasted 12 months or more can be dissolved. When you are living apart, you are classed as separated by the Inland Revenue and by the Benefits Agency.


“If you are not married…”

Unmarried couples do not divorce, they just go their separate ways. There is no such thing as a “common law marriage”. The legal problem for unmarried couples is usually associated with the financial aspects of the separation.

Call Gowen & Stevens now to help you understand whether you have financial matters that you need help resolving.

Pre and post-nuptial agreements

“In love, but once bitten, twice shy? Maybe you have seen the financial damage a split can do and want to protect yourself?”

Pre-Nuptial Agreements (or “pre-nups”) are becoming more common. The purpose is to ring-fence assets so that on divorce the wide discretion of a Judge to distribute assets as he or she sees fit, may be restricted.

The content of a Pre-Nuptial Agreement can vary widely, but commonly includes provisions for division of property and spousal support in the event of divorce or breakup of the marriage.

In the UK, the terms of a pre-nup are still not considered automatically binding on the Divorce Court. Because all the circumstances of the case can be taken in consideration by the Family Court in subsequent divorce proceedings, if there is a pre-nup, it just amounts to one of the relevant factors a judge must take into account.

Post-Nuptial Agreements (or “post-nups”) are written agreements by spouses made after a marriage. In a way, they are like Pre-Nuptial Agreements, but they are entered into after the marriage takes place. Their purpose is to try to “fix” something that is going wrong in the marriage, so that the marriage can go forward.

A post-nup can be a good thing to consider if you have previously separated but are now in a relationship again, and you want to avoid uncertainty if things go wrong again.

Civil partnerships

A same sex civil partnership has the same legal status as a marriage. It needs to be dissolved or you remain civil partners in law. Like marriage, the partnership must be at least a year old before you can apply to have it dissolved.

The process for dissolution of a civil partnership is very similar to a divorce. The civil partnership must have irretrievably broken down and the evidence of the breakdown which the Family Court can accept can be unreasonable behaviour, desertion, separation for two years within your civil partner's consent or separation for five years. The basis of the breakdown can be unreasonable behaviour, desertion, separation for two years or separation for five years

The Court Forms are freely available from your local Family Court. However, problems with service on the other partner, refusal of the other party to sign the papers, incorrect petitions and rejection by the Court, can lead to unnecessary street. Let us take that stress off your hands.

Mediation

“Think about mediation. “

Before you are entitled to issue Court proceedings you have to find out about mediation. You will need to choose a qualified mediator to carry out a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (or “MIAM”).

“Is a MIAM just a formality?"

Not so. Sometimes just communicating in a better way with a suitably trained mediator can stop the cycle of negativity that prevents parents getting on for the benefit of the children. You would be amazed at what real results can be achieved through mediation.

The mediation process is a safe place to discuss parenting issues and related issues. The Mediator acts as a listener and facilitator, staying neutral and guiding the discussion.

Ask us to recommend a good Mediator. We always signpost our clients to Mediators with a legal background, who we are confident will keep a strong grip on both of you!

You can receive legal advice from us at the same time as mediation, however we can only act for one spouse in a marriage. If an agreement is reached as a result of mediation it is not legally binding but will form the basis of a memorandum of understanding. Both parties will need legal advice if an Order in the agreed terms is sough from the Court.

Cohabitation

Below you will find some basic information concerning the rights of separating cohabitants who do not have a Cohabitation Agreement. Each set of personal circumstances vary, so professional advice is essential to protect your position.


The best way to protect your future interests as a cohabitant is to have a Cohabitation Agreement in place from the start (see below) or a Trust Deed which can record how you both agree to share the sale proceeds once your property is sold.

“How do I claim maintenance?”

A cohabitant cannot claim maintenance from a former partner. The ‘Common Law Wife’ has no such rights other than to pursue an application for income and capital for any child from a relationship.

“How is the property divided up?”

While the Family Court has extensive powers to adjust the ownership of capital assets belonging to a marriage, the County Court which deals with disputes between cohabitants has much less flexibility. If property or assets are in the sole name of one former partner the assumption is that those assets belong to that individual unless the other partner can prove that there was an agreement ("common intention") to the contrary. However, if it can be shown that the other person has made a substantial contribution towards the purchase or maintenance of a property, this may well have a decision of the Court. It is a complicated area and can be expensive to resolve. If is wise to get advice early to avoid making any expensive mistakes.

“Who inherits on death?”

Should your cohabiting partner die, none of the property in their sole name will automatically pass to you. So if you or your partner have specific wishes it is best to have a Will in place to ensure whose wishes are carried out. Remember too that for a single person, Inheritance Tax is payable out of the deceased's estate which is in excess of the relevant limit ("nil rate band". With marriage comes additional inheritance tax relief.

The surviving partner of a cohabiting couple has no absolute right to the deceased person’s pension either. The best that can be achieved is for each to name the other as the person to benefit under the terms of the pension scheme, if the pension scheme permits it.

Any assets or belongings are regarded as belonging to the person who paid for them, so the other person will not have any claim, unless he or she can establish that the item in question was given to him or her as a gift.

Where possessions are purchased from from joint funds, the assumption will be that the property is jointly owned. Jointly owed assets pass automatically to the survivor by virtue of "survivorship".

“What are the benefits of a cohabitation agreement?”

The best way of ensuring that there are no arguments should a relationship end is to draw up a Cohabitation Agreement before you start living together.

A Cohabitation Agreement can deal with income, capital, property, personal effects, as well as provision after death. It helps prevent arguments should a couple separate, which saves time, stress and legal costs. Provided that both parties have had independent legal advice and full financial disclosure has been made before the Agreement is signed, the Court is more likely to uphold the Agreement. There is no reason why a Separation Agreement can't be drawn up after the relationship has broken down. The Agreement will set out the terms upon which the couple have agreed to separate.

Domestic violence

“How can you deal with domestic abuse?”

Domestic abuse is often part of a series of problems involving children and finances and these issues need to be sensitively addressed in turn, adopting a child focussed approach. We recognise that people requiring this type of advice are often extremely vulnerable and emotional.

We have a team who are trained to advise and assist victims of this sort of behaviour, in complex and highly distressing circumstances.

We provide a safe, sympathetic environment within which we can identify the best way forward for you. We will help you to gain access to the specialist help you require by referring you to specialist counselling and support services, where appropriate.

“What is domestic abuse?”

Domestic abuse is the term used to describe unacceptable and inappropriate verbal, physical, sexual, emotional and psychological behaviour from one person towards another. The abuse may involve controlling behaviour, either control or finances or of a person's time and actions. Harassment commonly includes offensive and unwelcome phone calls, emails, letters verbal comments and messages posted on social networking sites.

“Protecting your safety”

Depending on your circumstances we can help you by providing an individual or a group of individuals with an appropriate written warning. If more drastic action is needed for your safety and protection, one of the following orders can be obtained:

  • A Non Molestation Order under the Family Law Act 1996 (this would prevent violence or harassment from the other party directed to you or your children);
  • An Injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act (this would prevent an individual from continuing to harass you)
  • An Occupation Order (these orders can regulate the use of the family home and can exclude an individual from a property and state that you can remain living there for a specified period)