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  1. Wealth
April 14, 2020

Listen: Divorce in the time of Coronavirus

By Anna Solomon

The Covid-19 crisis has made the complicated process of navigating the family courts even more difficult. To help, Spear’s assembled a panel of top family lawyers to unpick the complexity and offer the benefit of their experience and insight 

The coronavirus crisis will lead to more HNW divorces, according to a panel of top lawyers who took part in a Spear’s webinar.

Frances Hughes, partner at Hughes Fowler Carruthers, noted that divorces tend to peak at two times of the year: after Christmas and after the school summer holidays. In the latter case, strained marriages often break under the strain of couples spending prolonged periods of time together. 

All over the world, marriages are being put under intense pressure with already unhappy couples cooped up together. ‘If your relationship is already stressy, it’s probably not going to survive this,’ said Hughes.

Debbie Chism, partner at Stewarts, added that divorces often spike amid uncertainty, at peaks and troughs in the economic cycle. 

Hughes and Chism were taking part in a Spear’s webinar and were joined on the panel by Harry Oliver QC, a barrister at 1KBW and Laura Naser, a senior associate at Penningtons Manches Cooper. 

Coronavirus is also shaping the way that hearings are happening, said Harry Oliver QC who described how platforms such as Zoom are being used. ‘For those going through hearings, the most important thing is a fast broadband connection,’ Oliver said. Laura Naser welcomed the introduction of video-conferencing and noted that law was one of the last professions to be ‘modernised’ in this way.

Discussion then turned to whether the current situation meant that clients should seek to either delay or expedite divorce proceedings. In some cases, coronavirus could mean that it was advantageous to ‘press full stream ahead’, said Oliver. Though he noted that each case would require a bespoke approach and that the opposite could be true in other situations. 

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Frances Hughes said that private financial dispute resolution (FDR) was coming to the fore now that the court system was suffering from a backlog. With FDRs, clients can choose the identity of the judge and the timing of the settlement hearing. ‘The advantages are enormous to the couple,’ said Debbie Chism. 

Laura Naser’s Instagram account @TheFamilyLawyer gives her a unique insight into the way lockdown is affecting people’s relationships. She explained that complicated issues had arisen for people locked down with an abusive partner, and for children of separated parents.

There was also time to discuss family law’s recent brush with popular culture in the form of the Noah Baumbach movie Marriage Story and BBC drama The Split, which have depicted the profession and its practitioners to a wide audience. The Split was not always accurate in its depiction, said Hughes. But, she added: ‘anyone on the verge of a divorce should see Marriage Story.’

The panel

Frances Hughes
Senior Partner, Hughes Fowler Carruthers

Frances Hughes has practised family law for 38 years and attracts the family law industry’s biggest cases. She specialises in divorce and complex children’s cases, while also acting as a senior mediator. Hughes has been recognised as a Top Flight solicitor in the Spear’s Top Family Lawyers listing. She is consistently recognised by The Legal 500 and Chambers as a leading family lawyer. Chambers 2020 describes her as ‘Star Individual’, praising her highly on her “very clear strategic view of a case”, and describing her as “probably the best family lawyer there is – she brings so much skill and brainpower to her role”. Hughes has a keen interest in the arts, is a musician and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She studied English at Oxford University before qualifying as a solicitor in 1981. She set up the family law department at Bates, Wells & Braithwaite in the City in 1983.

Debbie Chism
Partner, Stewarts

Debbie Chism’s leading national reputation in family law is built on over 20 years’ experience advising high net worth individuals. She was crowned as Family Lawyer of the Year in 2019 at the Spear’s Wealth Management Awards, and is currently ranked as a Band 1 practitioner in both Chambers and The Legal 500. Chism’s practice encompasses all aspects of family law (complex asset valuation, business interests, trusts and wealth protection structures). She advises regularly on international pre-nuptial agreements. One of Chism’s particular areas of expertise is collaborative law, having co-founded England’s first multi-disciplinary group of collaborative professionals (Creative Divorce).

Harry Oliver QC
Barrister, 1 King’s Bench Walk

Harry Oliver is a recently appointed silk who has been ranked for many years in the professional directories. He twice (in 2018 and 2013) won the coveted Family Law Junior Barrister of the Year award, by Chambers & Partners. He was shortlisted as one of three finalists in 2012. No other barrister has ever won the award twice, and only one other has been nominated three times. Harry specializes in divorce, financial remedies and provision under Schedule 1. His cases regularly involve ‘big’ and ‘very big’ money (including with assets up to £3bn). He represents individuals, trusts and companies and has advised on overseas divorces including in Jersey, Guernsey, Cayman, Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Isle of Man. He is instructed to advise on pre-nuptial agreements including with international dimensions. Harry has been an expert witness on English law in foreign proceedings.

Laura Naser
Senior Associate, Penningtons Manches Cooper

Laura Naser is a senior associate in the family law team in Guildford. She has expertise in domestic and international family law, including financial cases and disputes concerning arrangements for children, for both married and unmarried couples. She regularly deals with a variety of cross-jurisdictional and high net worth matters, most recently in the USA, Singapore, Dubai, Australia and Europe. She is also experienced in acting for clients in emergency situations, making urgent applications to the court in cases relating to children, finances and domestic abuse. Naser won Family Lawyer of the Year – Senior/Managing Associate 2019 (Gold), and Innovative Individual of the Year 2019 (Silver) at the Citywealth Future Leaders Awards. As well as being featured in the 2019 Future Leaders Top 100: Super Advisors Citywealth Leaders List, she is noted in The Legal 500 2020 directory and won Family Law Commentator of the Year at the 2019 LexisNexis Family Law Awards. Naser has recently written The Family Lawyer’s Guide to Separation and Divorce – How to Get What You Both Want, a modern guide to a more amicable separation. You can follow Laura on Instagram, @TheFamilyLawyer, where she posts about family law issues and uses the platform to break down barriers and make family law more accessible.

Edwin Smith
Deputy Editor and Head of Research at Spear’s

Edwin Smith is Spear’s deputy editor & head of the Spear’s research unit. His writing has appeared in the Telegraph, Guardian, Evening Standard, Daily Mail, Independent, Wired, Esquire, Men’s Health, Spectator and Private Eye. He is the former acting-editor of The Jackal.

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