Divorcees who refuse to pay financial settlements may be prevented from driving or travelling abroad in a call for harsher sanctions for non-compliance.
The Law Commission has put forward a proposal to tackle the non-payment of settlements by ex-spouses, suggesting the enforcement of new penalties, including confiscation of UK passports and disqualification from driving for up to a year.
Under the current system a financial order is based on the needs of the recipient in terms of day-to-day expenses and support for dependent children. This maintenance payment is either set for a limited period or continues until dependents have finished their education, or one of the parties dies, re-marries, or enters into a civil partnership.
Driving disqualification is already in use as an enforcement against non-payment of child maintenance in England and Wales, but the Law Commission has highlighted that the avoidance of paying maintenance is “a significant problem”.
There are an estimated 4,200 cases brought to court related to the enforcement of financial orders each year. The law commissioner for property, family and trust law in England and Wales, Prof Nick Hopkins, explains: “We estimate there are £15m to £20m of debts each year that go unrecovered. And importantly these are only the cases that get to court.”
Non-compliant ex-spouses can be taken to court for failure to pay, but the Law Commission suggests that current sanctions are not enough of a deterrent – judges need a criminal standard of proof before passing a jail sentence so punishment is rarely enforced.
Prof Hopkins continued: “The law is so complex and inaccessible that there may be many other situations where money isn’t being paid but where the party is owed that money isn’t going to court because they can’t find their way through the law.”
“We’ve also found there are gaps and loopholes that mean that the [ex-spouse] may have assets that are beyond reach of the court, for example. He or she may have assets that are outside of the jurisdiction, outside England and Wales, or funds in a joint bank account.”
The effects of non-compliance can be severe for individuals and families, resulting in missed rent or mortgage payments, the lack of basic necessities and poor standard of living for children.
The Law Commission’s proposal is currently being considered by the Ministry of Justice to decide whether it should become part of new legislation on non-compliance.
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