I must confess that one of my guilty pleasures is Coronation Street and the ongoing Leanne/Steve/Nick/Michelle baby storyline has well and truly erupted over the last week.
To briefly summarise the background (which, unsurprisingly for a soap, is messy and complicated), Steve is married to Michelle. Steve and Michelle temporarily split last year and during this time Steve spent the night with Leanne. Steve subsequently reconciled with Michelle and Leanne reconciled with and became engaged to her childhood sweetheart, Nick. Leanne and Steve kept what had happened between them a secret. However, Leanne unexpectedly became pregnant and so she told Nick the truth. Leanne and Nick had always wanted a child and so suggested to Steve that they bring up the baby, with Steve having no involvement. Steve agreed, as by this time Michelle had also become pregnant and he believed that his marriage would be over if she discovered the truth. Tragically, Michelle’s baby son was stillborn a few weeks before Leanne gave birth to a healthy baby, Oliver. On meeting baby Oliver Steve could not keep the secret any longer and in true Coronation Street style announced in a restaurant full of people that he is the father.
This has brought to the surface a number of practical and legal problems. Michelle is understandably furious with Steve. She wants to divorce him and retain control of The Rovers Return, the pub they run together. Nick wants Leanne to agree to formalise his role in Oliver’s life on the basis that he sees him as his own son and this was what they all agreed. Steve wants access to Oliver and for his own parental rights to be recognised. Amidst the drama, this week’s episodes contained some serious yet common legal misconceptions and myths that I think need to be cleared up.
1. Leanne – “when I marry Nick he will have Parental Responsibility for Oliver”.
This is not true. Nick will not automatically obtain Parental Responsibility for Oliver by marrying Leanne. He can only obtain it with Leanne’s explicit consent by Leanne entering into a Parental Responsibility Agreement with Nick.
(NB if Leanne were to register Steve on Oliver’s birth certificate, Steve would have Parental Responsibility and Nick would need the consent of Steve as well as Leanne to obtain Parental Responsibility for himself. It is possible for more than two people to have Parental Responsibility for a child and granting Parental Responsibility to a third person would not remove Parental Responsibility from anyone else who already has it.)
Once Nick and Leanne are married Nick could apply to court for a Parental Responsibility Order in his capacity as Oliver’s step parent.
When making any decisions the court would consider the best interests of Oliver to be the priority, rather than the “rights” of any of the adults involved
For more about Parental Responsibility, click here.
2. Michelle’s solicitor to Steve – “you have committed adultery with Leanne. You cannot contest the divorce.”
This is also not true. If a divorce petition is based on adultery the respondent (Steve) would need to sign a formal confession statement within the divorce proceedings in order for the proceedings to go ahead undefended. If Steve refuses to sign the confession statement the divorce would become defended and the court would list an oral hearing to deal with the matter. This would come at huge cost for Michelle and Steve, both emotionally and financially.
An alternative would be for Michelle to petition Steve for divorce on the basis of his unreasonable behaviour. Although Steve would still need to confirm his agreement to the divorce going ahead undefended, there would be no requirement for him to formally admit and confess to the allegations of behaviour in the same way that he would be required to formally admit and confess to his adultery. For that reason many people choose to petition on the basis of behaviour rather than adultery, even where adultery is the main reason for the marriage breaking down.
For more about unreasonable behaviour and divorce, click here.
3. Michelle’s solicitor to Michelle – “Steve is the sole legal owner of The Rovers Return. You don’t have a financial stake in the business.”
No. All assets and liabilities, whether jointly owned or held in sole names, are taken into consideration on divorce so as to try and achieve a fair financial outcome. It often does not matter whose name an asset is held in, particularly if the marriage is a lengthy one. It may be that Steve could keep the pub, but if he does it is likely that he would need to make significant provision for Michelle from his other assets.
4. Michelle’s solicitor visited Steve and made proposals for a financial settlement on divorce without considering disclosure and without giving Steve the opportunity to seek independent legal advice.
This would be very bad practice on the solicitor’s part and, should an agreement be reached, could give rise to a subsequent application by Steve to “set aside” the agreement on the basis that he was put under pressure to enter into it. Both parties in a divorce should be given reasonable opportunity to seek independent legal advice.
Further, an agreement should not be entered into without mutual exchange of full and frank financial disclosure. This is a statement completed by each party setting out their assets, liabilities and any other relevant matters, together with supporting evidence. Exchange of disclosure is crucial as it enables the parties and their legal representatives to have a clear, accurate and comprehensive picture of the financial circumstances before deciding on an appropriate way for the finances to be split.