Resolution national conference: Chairperson's speech

13 Mar 2010

David Allison, Resolution Chair

I know exactly what Alison means about the number of colleagues who have said “I’d rather die than address the National Conference”. But here I am. And I hope that what I’m going to share with you will make you understand why I’m so determined to overcome the fear factor.

We are at a real turning point in terms of the future of family law in England & Wales – with an Election around the corner and family issues top of the political agenda, the opportunities for influencing and shaping the future of family law are the best they’ve ever been.

Resolution too is at a turning point. We have made huge strides over the past 28 years and the challenge now is for us to come together and work to shape the organisation for the next 28 years.

So, putting the fear factor on one side I feel very fortunate to be taking over as chair of Resolution at this particular time. The organisation has transformed from its humble beginnings to a national organisation that now, above all others, is seen as the respected voice of the profession - by the media, by politicians and, increasingly, by the public.

I truly believe that we are in a position of influence that will bring about real change for the benefit of families.

We have not arrived at this enviable position through luck. It is a consequence of hard work, persistence and our enormous professionalism.

The political landscape has changed beyond recognition over the last decade or so. Before the Labour government there was the attempt by the Conservatives to bring about ‘no fault’ divorce in the Family Law Act 1996, a move that was largely prevented following a campaign by one of our most virulent national newspapers, the Daily Mail.

Since then the topic of family law reform has been seen as off limits by many politicians. Of course there was, what was for me, the most progressive and welcome piece of legislation for decades – the Civil Partnership Act 2004 which became law on 15 December 2005.

As a gay man who had struggled with his sexuality until the age of 27 before finally giving up the fight and accepting what I was, this legislation was a breakthrough of a magnitude that few heterosexual people will fully understand.

At last, even though homophobia was far from dead, the state had placed gay relationships on a level with those of our straight friends. This was of course legislation that was supported by Resolution and in respect of which we were consulted and had our voice heard.

And since then we have continued to fight the other discrimination that persists in the family law of England and Wales and have continued to promote policies that deal with the reality of modern families - who as we all know - come in all shapes and sizes.

Our politicians need to stop using family life as a political football and engage instead with real solutions which support rather than judge families.

There is a great deal of political rhetoric at the moment but very little engagement with practical solutions.

Yesterday we published the results of a YouGov survey which showed that only 17 percent of people believe unhappily married couples should stay together because of the children. If unhappy families aren’t going to stay together because of their children – they certainly won’t stay together because of a £10 tax break.

The present government has paid lip service to the idea of supporting families of all shapes and sizes but has allowed discrimination to persist in family law by passing up the opportunity to reform the law for cohabiting couples.

It is shameful that the law discriminates against cohabitants and their children.

Shameful that one parent in a cohabiting couple can make career sacrifices to focus on raising children but be left with no financial redress if that relationship ends.

Particularly shameful that there are those in the world of politics who espouse personal responsibility but campaign against extending personal responsibility to people who live together.

The law reform agenda

You will have gathered from what I have said that one of my main priorities as chair of Resolution will be to build upon the excellent work that has already been done on our law reform agenda.


Reform of the law for cohabitants has been Resolution policy since 2000 and we have actively worked for law reform in this area ever since. Initially we worked with the Law Society to draft a bill that we hoped might be presented as a private member’s bill. We were then involved in a detailed response to the Law Commission proposals on cohabitation but it was only after their report and proposals were effectively kicked into the long grass by the government that we had the opportunity for a private members bill.

That opportunity came from an article I had written for the April 2008 edition of the New Law Journal. What I wrote ‘struck a chord’ as I received an e-mail saying that Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC had read my article and was interested in meeting us and working with us to introduce a Private Members Bill.

What followed was a complete whirlwind and was, for me, one of the most exciting periods of my professional life. It was a project that would take up huge amounts of my time and Resolution resources. We went through a full consultation process before instructing former parliamentary counsel to draft a Bill.

Although the bill did not complete its committee stage in the House of Lords – due to lack of support from the government – it did create huge press and parliamentary interest in Resolution. It also gave us the opportunity to work with the first life member of Resolution, Baroness Elizabeth Butler Sloss who joined the working group.

We know from the cohabitation survey of Resolution members carried out in 2007 that over 70% of our membership believes that the current law deals badly with the interest of cohabitants.

I know that not everybody agrees, but our strength lies in the fact that we are a diverse membership with an ethos that encourages and respects different points of view. Debate and discussion will continue to be an integral part of our policy-making.

I believe that the reality speaks for itself. Cohabitation is the fastest growing family type in the UK. The number of cohabiting couples is projected to double to 3.8 million in 2031 – one in four of all couples.

If these people were living together in full knowledge of their lack of protection, that would be one thing. But they aren’t: The majority of the population believe that cohabitants have ‘common law’ rights. In 2008 The British Social attitudes survey showed that over half the population believed that they had rights as common law spouses. Interestingly that same study showed that nearly 90% believed that long term cohabitants and those with children should have rights.

It is often said that giving cohabitants rights will undermine marriage. I am sorry if this sounds rude but that is patent nonsense.

Cohabitation is increasing across the western world. It is not unique to Britain despite what certain politicians would have us believe and the increase in cohabitation is taking place irrespective of the law. There is absolutely no evidence that giving rights to cohabitants will result in lower marriage rates. Quite the reverse. This was certainly recognised by the Church of England Bishops who spoke passionately in support of Lord Lester’s bill in the Lords. It is also what the research shows us.

Family law must keep up with modern families. I referred earlier to the Civil Partnership Act. I should also refer to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act that became law last year. We now have a legal system that, in some respects is so progressive that it allows for same sex parents to be named on the birth certificate and treated in law as parents and yet in other ways – the way that cohabitants are treated on relationship breakdown – remains in the dark ages.

The time is right for change.

‘No Fault Divorce’

Earlier I mentioned the ill-fated Family Law Act 1996. Our clear policy then was that ‘no fault’ divorce was right and appropriate and that remains our policy. Although I am talking to a group of specialist family lawyers I do want to be absolutely clear what I mean by ‘no fault’ divorce.

It has been suggested by some (Baroness Ruth Deech included) that we already have a ‘no fault’ system insofar as fault is not relevant to financial outcomes on divorce and because a marriage may be dissolved by agreement once a couple have lived apart for at least two years.

Both of those statements are of course true. However, if a couple do not wish to wait until they have lived apart for at least two years they must rely on adultery or unreasonable behaviour. The 2008 divorce statistics show us that 64% of divorces granted during that year were based on adultery or unreasonable behaviour. The reality is that most petitions are fault based.

So what does the public think about the blame game? The results of our YouGov survey showed that almost 70 percent of people are in favour of no fault divorce. We all know the difficulties the current system creates for our clients. Some of course are angry and upset and so find no difficulty at all in listing the unreasonable things that their husband or wife has done. Others are left feeling bewildered when they have reached an often difficult decision to divorce and are being told they need to cite their husband or wife’s behaviour “which by the way is not relevant to the outcome”. There can be absolutely no sense in that.

More worryingly, forcing someone to list their husband or wife’s unreasonable behaviour, often spills over into issues concerning children or finances making it more difficult than it would otherwise be to achieve a sensible and appropriate outcome. This can lead to unnecessarily traumatic, lengthy and costly proceedings and can adversely affect the future relationships of the adults and the children.

It is not the fact of divorce but the conflict that damages children. Therefore if the guiding principle of family law is to promote the welfare of children we must promote a system that minimises conflict as opposed to one that encourages it.

Of course what we as family lawyers don’t see are the many people who divorce without using a lawyer. It was fascinating therefore for me to read some of the posts on the DIY forum at

The most significant number of questions posted to that web site are from people struggling to draft their own petitions without using behaviour particulars that will jeopardise their relationship with their husband or wife and potentially their children.

One visitor to the web site posted the following “as much as I would like to rant and rave, I do not want to insult my husband and cause undue distress and ill feeling. What should I do”? Another, after having issued a behaviour petition using language that he thought was innocuous “oh well- I’ve really stirred a hornet’s nest now”.

Almost one in four divorced people in our YouGov poll said that not having to blame the other person would have improved their experience. How then can a blame focused process be in the interest of families and, in particular, children?

Another argument often employed against ‘no fault’ divorce is that making divorce easier will mean more people divorce. Indeed Baroness Deech said as much in the December 2009 edition of Family Law. From what I can fathom, her argument appeared to be that divorce is now easier than it was prior to the 1969 reforms, and that as there are more divorces than before 1969 this must be the reason.

Of course this ignores the massive social change that has also taken place during that period and the fact that the sharp rise in divorces is something that is mirrored across the western world and flies in the face of public opinion. 74 percent of respondents to our YouGov poll agreed that marriages end irrespective of how hard or easy it is to get a divorce.

Another 72% said that unhappy families should not stay together because of the children. And like them, we know that families think long and hard about separating. The idea that people give as much thought to getting a divorce as they do to popping out for a pint of milk and a newspaper is just ludicrous.

Marriage and Civil Partnership agreements

Resolution is also campaigning for enforceable pre-nuptial and civil partnership agreements and I just want to briefly mention the excellent work by Jeremy Posnansky Q.C and Sarah Anticoni. We have been able to give a real lead to the Law Commission who, as you know, are currently reviewing the law in this area. We have also been able to pass our recommendations wholesale to the political parties who are all considering this as an area ripe for reform. I would not be at all surprised if Resolutions’ proposals form the shape of any new law.

On your chairs you will find our manifesto ‘Family Law Reform; Changing family law for changing families’ which sets out these key areas for reform.

Parenting after Parting

Moving away from the law reform agenda I did also want to say just a few words about the Parenting after Parting initiative. Although it has been slower to take off than most of us would have wanted it is, for me, probably one of the most significant pieces of work that Resolution has undertaken since its formation and creation of the code of practice.

Resolution was started with the purpose of making the practice of family law better for divorcing and separating families. There is no question that this has made a significant difference for families. Parenting after Parting has made us focus on the people i.e. children who should be at the centre of our work. If this initiative takes off it has the potential to improve significantly the lives of children.

It is interesting to note that the recent government green paper makes reference to ‘parenting together apart’ pilots. Resolution will of course be responding to the green paper and will continue to exert whatever influence it can so that children fare better.

What does Resolution do for its Members and for Divorcing and Separating families

I have talked a lot about the campaigning that Resolution undertakes. Clearly the purpose of such work is to improve the system within which we all work for the benefit of families going through divorce and separation. That is a laudable aim but in these difficult economic times I suspect that some members may question whether their membership of Resolution gives them the sufficient benefit.

It may sound trite but it is undoubtedly the case that campaigning brings profile not just for Resolution but also for its members. The Resolution web site now has more hits than ever before. 150,000 people visited the site last year. Many of those are accessing the web site to find a Resolution member.

Resolution’s central office is also receiving more enquiries than ever. This of course means more work for Resolution members. As members we all stand to gain from the increased profile and recognition that Resolution has.

Resolution has recently been approached by the government’s Child Maintenance Options service and been asked to develop Resolution branded pages in their website. This means that anyone who visits the legal advice pages of that site will see the Resolution logo, information about the ethos of Resolution and perhaps most important of all be directed to our search engine to find a Resolution lawyer.

I am sure also that as respect for the organisation grows the greater the marketing benefit of being able to show the Resolution badge on your note paper and other marketing materials. I think this is increasingly so in a climate in which members of the public will expect more for their money and, importantly, will want to be sure they use a lawyer who will enable them and their family to come out of the process relatively unscathed.

Of course it is not just of tangential benefit to be a Resolution member. There are considerable direct benefits. Resolution offers members a career path, whether as an accredited specialist, a mediator, a collaborative lawyer or an ordinary member.

We support our standards through a national training programme, regionally delivered. We have a developing publications programme that will enable members to have ready access (at reduced cost) to the very best materials.

I also wanted particularly to point you towards the really excellent booklet in your conference pack that has been produced by the Domestic Abuse Committee “Domestic Abuse Screening Toolkit”. The aim of this booklet is to help us all become much better at spotting those of our cases where domestic abuse is an issue. This is, in my view, a fantastic and much needed publication and one that I will refer to frequently.

We are now also the largest organisation offering mediation and collaborative law training. The Review has also been transformed into what is now a ‘must have’ publication for any family lawyer.

I mentioned earlier the enormous strides Resolution has made over the past 28 years. In particular, since 2003 we have:

  • Developed National Training
  • Brought collaborative training to our members
  • Expanded the accreditation scheme to include more junior members
  • Revised our membership scheme to be more inclusive
  • Expanded our publications
  • Become the key family lawyers negotiating body for family legal aid and been a major trainer and information provider for legal aid practitioners
  • We’ve increased our PR support to members, through regional publicity, marketing packs and materials
  • Improved our profile through the public website
  • Developed Parenting after Parting resources for you and for your clients through the booklet, the charts, the web pages and the workshops

I could probably go on and on, but rather than me telling you about all of the things Resolution has done for you as members, let me show you just a small part of what we’ve all achieved

Click here to view presentation

That was just the tip of the iceberg – and as I’ve said, Resolution has made huge strides. It’s clear just how large and influential a profile we now have and just how wide ranging the service we as members now receive.

Resolution is good value for money. Since 2006, Resolution subscriptions have only increased by inflation, but the organisation has grown by 50%.

How then have we funded that growth? As many of you will know, the organisation did have significant reserves and a decision was made to use some of those reserves for the benefit of our members. Spending reserves has enabled us to work on things like Parenting after Parting and the Cohabitation Bill 2008. It enabled us to increase our policy work and provide additional services for members.

However, the reserves will not last forever. We now need to ensure that Resolution is on a proper financial footing in order to continue to carry out the extremely valuable work it has been able to do both for the benefit of its members and also for families. The only way we can do that is to introduce a managed increase in subscriptions. I hope you will agree with me that this is an essential step. I hope also that you will support it and, remind other members of how much Resolution does for them and for families.

So, where do we go from here? I talked earlier about Resolution being at a turning point. This year we will be having a fundamental think about the Association – who we are, what we are here to achieve and our core activities. We need to make sure we continue to be relevant to you, the members, and provide you with the best services so that you can be the best family lawyers you can.

We will re-visit what you have told us previously in the various surveys we have undertaken and we want to hear your ideas or any concerns . I am determined during my period of office to be accessible to all our members. In the version of this speech that will appear in the next edition of the Review both my direct telephone number and e-mail will be printed. Please do use them.

I hope what you’ll take away from this speech this morning is what an exciting time this is, both for the future of family law in England & Wales and for Resolution. We’re at an important turning point and there are real opportunities for us all to influence both the shape and the future of family law, but also the shape and future of our organisation. Together we can take Resolution forward.