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Edinburgh Family Law Conference 8-9 February 2002

David Truex

Family Law April 2002

In February the Scottish Family Law Association invited their colleagues from England and Wales, Eire and Northern Ireland to Edinburgh for the annual Family Law Congress.

The meeting followed a tradition established some years ago by family lawyers from Liverpool and Dublin, led from the English side by David Harris QC and Maureen Roddy (now HHJs Harris and Roddy), with family lawyers traversing the Irish sea in alternate years to participate in each otherís family law conferences. In November 1999 the moveable feast was celebrated in Belfast for the first time and three Scottish family lawyers attended. When the meeting was convened in Dublin in January 2001 the number of Scots attending more than doubled and their enthusiasm was such that they agreed to host the 2002 event.

Over 250 family lawyers from the four jurisdictions of the British Isles were treated to a Congress where the ambience could best be described as Scottish international. On Friday evening, after a tour of Parliament House, we were piped into a welcome reception at Edinburgh Castle, hosted by the Minister for Justice, the Rt Hon Jim Wallace. Delegates were permitted to roam freely through the museum which houses the Scottish crown jewels and, a recent acquisition, the Stone of Destiny (tactlessly identified by one Sassenach, who shall remain nameless, as the Stone of Scone!).

Saturdayís working sessions comprised two panel discussions with contributors from all four jurisdictions. The first session was on Brussels II and comparative financial provision on divorce, the second covered child protection procedures. Panels were chaired, respectively, by Lord Bonomy, Senator of the College of Justice in Scotland, and the Hon Mrs Justice Black of the Family Division of the High Court of Justice in England and Wales. In a third working session, chaired by the Hon Justice Catherine McGuinness of the Supreme Court of Ireland, Ruth Deech, chair of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, spoke on Reproductive Technology, Family and Human Rights.

In the short space available in this note it is impossible to do justice to all of the speakers and chairs, every one of whom made an excellent contribution. For me the most fascinating aspect of a day which was full of surprises was the way in which lawyers from the four jurisdictions approached problems with such marked differences of expectation. Lord Justice Thorpe, who attended as a guest, hit the nail on the head when he commented that the Scottish law of financial provision following divorce is very different from that in England and Wales because, well, things are simply different in Scotland. His Lordship put this much more elegantly but I did not take a verbatim note. Dick Podell from Wisconsin, a former chair of the ABA Family Law Section, pointed out that things were even more complicated in the 54 different matrimonial jurisdictions within the USA and its territories.

In discussions afterwards it became clear that Scottish family lawyers really do think it is sensible for there to be a presumption of equal division of matrimoinal property acquired during the marriage and that spousal maintenance after divorce should not easily be granted. By contrast, every Irish lawyer I spoke with strongly endorsed their principle that maintenance for the ex-wife should be for life or until remarriage. Both camps argued their cases with conviction and eloquence but there was no meeting of minds. How does one say vive la difference in Gaelic?

Five members of the SLFA International Committee crossed the border to attend the Congress and threw themselves into the proceedings with enthusiasm. Carolynn Usher and Andrea Woelke asked passably intelligent questions from the floor, David Hodson got into a couple of intricate debates on Brussels II and Tina Dunn must have spoken with just about every one of the 250 or so delegates.

I took the opportunity to call a meeting of the chairs of the family lawyer representative groups from our neighbour jurisdictions. We agreed to establish more regular and formal links with each other to promote mutual understanding and, potentially, to cooperate on issues of common interest such as law reform, legal aid and coping with the Europeanisation of family law.

Next yearís meeting will take place in Liverpool. Our Merseyside hosts will be hard pressed to match the combination of education and hospitality to which we were treated in Edinburgh but I understand the organisers are already working to ensure a memorable event. All family lawyers with an interest in what is happening beyond the confines of their own jurisdictions would be well advised to book early.

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