The recent and ongoing pandemic has caused much upheaval, and for many this has meant having to put life on hold, connecting with loved ones via FaceTime, Zoom, from afar, or through a glass window.
For some however, distancing themselves, particularly from a former loved one, could not be more welcomed and the outbreak has stifled their plans to distance themselves further than the two metre rule, and move on to enjoy an independent life away from the other.
At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, many courts and tribunals in England and Wales stopped hearing cases in person and operated a much reduced service. This saw many hearings being adjourned, and in many cases only hearings deemed as essential were allowed to be heard. Although the courts have seemingly adapted remarkably well, with the majority moving towards remote hearings, for some, the delay the pandemic created, has caused them anguish and frustration.
This scenario has been seen all over the world, even amongst celebrity couples, who, are often seen as able as being able to jump the queue and be first in line (though this is rarely actually the case). Unfortunately for them, they too have had to wait and deal with the frustration of adjournments. This was reportedly the case for Mary-Kate Olsen, actress, fashion icon, and one half of the Olsen twin brand, and Oliver Sartkozy, financier, and half-brother of the former French President, Nicholas Sartkozy.
In April 2020, Mary-Kate Olsen and Oliver Sartkozy announced they were divorcing after five years of marriage. The marriage did not start off without its criticism – Sartkozy, a divorcee, father of two, and 17 years Olsen’s senior – did not seem to many an obvious pairing.
The breakdown of the marriage, is thought to have ended when Sartkozy insisted his ex-wife and children move into the marital home he shared with Olsen. Whatever the reason, tensions reached a head in early April 2020 and Olsen filed a petition for divorce.
Unfortunately, Olsen’s application was deemed non-essential by Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Michael Katz who confirmed the New York Court would only accept emergency cases during the pandemic.
Not to be deterred, apparently Olsen refiled her application, and on her second attempt did so on an emergency basis; on the grounds that Sartkozy was expecting her to move out of the marital home in the midst of the pandemic and whilst the city was in lockdown. In her application, Olsen is alleged to have claimed the urgency was that Sartkozy would “dissipate, dispose of, or secret not only her (my) separate property belongings but also their (our) marital property belongings”.
Despite her attempt, Olsen’s application was denied by the court once more, on the basis that again, it was not considered an emergency and a truly essential case.
So what constitutes an urgent or essential matter in the family court? And is business back to normal now that we are coming out of lockdown? Throughout the pandemic the government has provided weekly operational summaries and late last month HM Courts & Tribunals Service released a statement, as agreed by the President of the Family Division, setting out the court’s ‘business priorities’.
The list of work ‘that must be done’ includes, but not limited to, Emergency Protection Orders, Interim Care Orders, Child Abduction Orders and Domestic Abuse (Family law Act) Injunctions, as well as, Secure Accommodation Orders and Forced Marriage Protection Orders.
In addition, further guidance has been provided by the government on contingency arrangements for Family Law Act injunctions to ensure that applications such as these are prioritised, and victims of domestic abuse get urgent protection.
Sadly, the reality is that for many, issues which are without question urgent for them will not be dealt with as quickly as they would hope, which will mean families are in limbo for longer. For some people, ADR (alternative dispute resolution, outside the main court system) may prove a swifter alternative, but of course it is not suitable for all cases. It is important that anyone dealing with relationship breakdown understands all of the available options and can make an informed decision as to what is likely to be the most suitable route forward for them in these unusual and uncertain times.