Family law in Jersey

10 August 2012

This briefing is intended to provide answers to some of the key questions that you may have regarding family law proceedings in Jersey whether you are married, unmarried or in a civil partnership.

Breakdown of a marriage or civil partnership
When should I consult a lawyer?
If you have relationship problems, you may first want to consider the facilities offered by a relationship counsellor or therapist in order to resolve any difficulties before embarking on any legal proceedings. If this is not a suitable option and more formal steps are necessary to end your marriage or civil partnership then it is often preferable for parties to seek initial legal advice as to the options available to them and any actions they should or should not take. It is often the case that steps taken by individuals or the conduct of the parties prior to taking legal advice can have a detrimental impact on any subsequent proceedings and any financial settlement or family arrangements.

How long do I have to have been married or in a civil partnership?
Except in cases of exceptional hardship suffered by one party or where the other party's behaviour has been exceptionally depraved, divorce proceedings or an application for the dissolution of a civil partnership cannot be commenced until the parties have been married for three years. In either case, you must also be domiciled in Jersey or have been habitually resident in Jersey for one year prior to issuing proceedings.

If you have not been married or in a civil partnership for the requisite three years, you may commence proceedings for judicial separation on any of the grounds for divorce (and additionally the ground that your spouse is a habitual drunkard) or dissolution.

Where such proceedings are commenced it opens the gateway to possible financial relief which would not otherwise be available.  Court proceedings will still need to be undertaken but at the hearing date you will obtain a decree of judicial separation as opposed to a decree nisi or a final order. Once three years have passed you may then commence divorce proceedings or apply to have the civil partnership dissolved on the same ground upon which you obtained a judicial separation which will be sufficient proof of the ground on which it was granted.

What are the grounds for divorce or dissolution of a civil partnership?
Divorce proceedings are issued by way of a petition which sets out the particulars of your marriage, grounds for divorce and the relief required. The person seeking the divorce is known as the petitioner; the other spouse is known as the respondent. The petitioner may issue divorce proceedings on any of the following grounds:

  • The respondent has committed adultery and the petitioner finds it intolerable to live with the respondent.  (The person with whom the adultery has been committed is usually named as a co-respondent in the proceedings);
  • The respondent has deserted the petitioner without cause for at least two years;
  • The respondent has behaved in such as way that you cannot reasonably be expected to live together. (This is often referred to as the unreasonable behaviour ground);
  • The respondent is incurably of unsound mind and has been continuously under care and treatment for at least five years; 
  • The respondent is serving a prison sentence for life or for a term of not less than fifteen years; 
  • The parties have lived apart for a continuous period of at least one year immediately preceding the petition and the respondent consents to the divorce; or
  • The parties have lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the petition; no consent is required from the respondent.

Proceedings to dissolve a civil partnership are commenced by application to the Court which will set out the particulars of the civil partnership, the grounds for dissolution and the relief required.  If you start the proceedings you will be known as the applicant and your partner will be the respondent.  In order for a dissolution to be granted you must satisfy the court that one of the following grounds exist:

  • The respondent has behaved in such a way that the applicant cannot reasonably be expected to live with them;
  • The respondent is incurably of unsound mind and has been continuously under care and treatment for a period of at least 5 years;
  • The respondent has deserted the applicant without cause for a period of 2 years preceding the application;
  • The parties have lived apart for a continuous period of at least one year immediately preceding the application and the respondent consents to the dissolution; or
  • The parties have lived apart for a continous period of at least 2 years immediately preceding the application; no consent is required from the respondent.

Whether in respect of a divorce or dissolution, evidence of the alleged ground will need to be provided to the Court therefore it is advisable to try and keep records of any examples of the behaviour and dates on which any relevant behaviour or steps were taken.

What steps will need to be taken?
Once the divorce petition or application for dissolution has been completed, it will be sent to the Court along with your original marriage or civil partnership certificate. Once the court has received the petition/application, it will be served on your spouse or partner as respondent and, if applicable, on the co-respondent. You will therefore need to try and establish your spouse/partner's current address.

If your spouse does not defend the divorce your case will be added to the next list of undefended divorces (there are normally six a year) when a decree nisi will be obtained confirming that the grounds for divorce are established. Similarly, where the dissolution is undefended the Court will grant a conditional order. You will not have to attend court on this hearing date.  (However, the parties must expect to attend court if matters relating to the children or financial issues cannot be agreed between them).

Having been granted a decree nisi or a conditional order, after six weeks have passed you may apply for a decree aboslute or a final order which is the final stage in the process and which means that you are then divorced or the civil partnership is dissolved. However, the Court may delay the granting of a decree absolute or final order if it is not satisfied that all issues relating to the children and other financial matters have been resolved. You will not be able to remarry or enter into another civil partnership until you have the decree absolute or final order.

What if my spouse/partner defends the divorce or dissolution?
After being served with the petition or application, depending on the ground, your spouse/partner will need to inform the court of their intention to defend the divorce or dissolution by sending a document known as an answer to the Court setting out why the petition or application is defended. The matter will then be heard before the court and it will determine whether an order can be made.

What arrangements will be made for the children?
Where there are children of the marriage, partnership or of the family the child's welfare will be the main consideration of the Court. Where arrangments can be agreed, a statement of arrangements for the children must be completed and sent to the Court with the divorce petition/application for dissolution in order to allow the Court to consider whether appropriate arrangments have indeed been made regarding their care, welfare and education.

Where matters cannot be agreed, you may wish to consider mediation as an appropriate (and often less costly) method of resolving any disagreement. Mediation is where parties meet (with or without lawyers) to try and reach an agreement through formal discussion. If mediation is not appropriate or an agreement still cannot be reached, the Court has the power to make various orders for the children's wellbeing including where they will live and how contact is arranged. These are set out in more detail under the heading "Matters relating to children".

How will finances and maintenance be resolved?
All financial issues, including: maintenance for the children, maintenance for your spouse, transfer or division of matrimonial assets, collectively known as ancillary relief, must be either agreed or resolved by the court. Whilst the process of obtaining a decree nisi or final order can be fairly swift, ancilliary relief can often take some time to agree. This is another time when mediation (as explained above) is often appropriate.

In order to determine any proposed agreement or in order for the court to reach a decision regarding ancillary relief you and your spouse will need to complete an affidavit of means which is a document sworn on oath setting out income, expenses, assets and liabilities. Each party is under a duty to provide full and frank disclosure therefore a party must avoid any temptation not to provide a full acount of their assets or sources of income. You will also need to provide some essential documentation in support of your affidavit of means relating to any property, pension and insurance policy valuations, tax assessments, bank statements, wage slips etc. It is therefore important to keep as much documentation as you can to support your claims; in addition to the above essential documents, these can be receipts for expenses you allege you have, letters, diary records etc.

Payment of maintenance may be by way of periodic payments or a lump sum payment.  Where a clean break is required between the parties a lump sum payment is usual but if there are any children of the family it is more likely that periodic payments would be appropriate.  As a general rule, the court will expect the parent who does not have the day-to-day care of the children to pay maintenance for the children. This is a contribution towards all living expenses, education, clothing and other expenses of the children.

Factors relevant to financial issues generally will be:

  • Income, earning capacity, property value and other financial resources of each party (including any future entitlement to any financial resources).
  • The financial needs, obligations and responsibilities of each party.
  • Standard of living enjoyed by the family prior to the breakdown of the marriage/civil partnership.
  • The age of each party and the duration of the marriage/civil partnership.
  • Any physical or mental disability of either party.
  • Contributions (financial or otherwise) made by each party.
  • The conduct of either party where it is so bad it would be unfair to ignore it.
  • Any fianancial disadvantage that either party would suffer due to the breakdown of the marriage.

Where a party does not have access to resources pending the outcome of any settlement it may also be possible to apply for interim maintenance, including where one party does not have sufficient resources to fund the proceedings to the same degree as the other party.

Will there be any publicity?
Family proceedings are generally heard in private therefore it is unlikely that any details would reach the public domain or attract media attention.

I am a victim of domestic abuse and need protection from my partner
If you are a victim of domestic violence, incidents can be reported to the Public Protection Unit of the States of Jersey Police on (01534) 612239 (or 999 in an emergency). The Women's Refuge may also be able to assist a woman who is suffering physical or mental abuse and, by working with outreach workers enable you to feel strong enough to break away.

By informing your lawyer, it may also be possible to obtain additional protection by obtaining an injunction. These may be to prevent your spouse or partner from coming into contact with you, harassing you or otherwise harming you, or to order them to leave the family home.

Matters relating to children
What orders can the Court make?
As set out above, the Court has power to make a variety of orders relating to children whether as part of any other proceedings or where parents are not married. However, the Court will not make any order relating to a child unless it is satisfied that making an order would be better for the child than not making an order. Before making any order the Court may also require the parties to speak to a Jersey Family court Advisory Service Officer to ensure the child's best interests are being met.

The parent with the day-to-day care of a child is described as having "residence" (previously referred to as custody). If this cannot be agreed then the court may make an order stating with whom the child shall live. A residence order lasts until the child reaches the age of sixteen but can be longer in some circumstances. It prevents anyone from changing the surname of the child or removing them from Jersey (for over one month) without the agreement of everyone who has parental responsibility (or an order of the court). "Parental responsibility" is a term used to describe the rights of a parent, enabling him/her to have a say in the manner in which his or her children are brought up, what religion they should follow, what school they go to etc. Where a child's parants are married both will have parental responsibility, otherwise only the mother will have it unless the father acquires it by agreement or order of the Court.  Residence can also be "shared" between both parents. 

Maintenance is generally payable for the children by the parent who does not have residence of the children and the level of maintenance will depend on the financial situation of both parties and the needs of the children. Parents who are not married are under the same obligation to maintain a child where appropriate.

"Contact" (previously known as access) is the right of the child, where the parents are separated or unmarried, to know the non-residential parent and his brothers and sisters. As with residence orders, contact orders generally last until the child is 16 years of age. There are no set rules about how much contact there should be; it will depend on all the circumstances of the case. Where direct contact is not immediately possible for whatever reason the Court may order that indirect or supervised contact takes place to ensure the relationship between the child and non-resident parent is maintained. 

The court may also make orders to prevent a parent from taking any specified steps (for example, removing the child from Jersey) or to deal with any specific issues (for example, certain medical intervention).

Illegitimate children
An illegitimate child is a child born of non-married parents. The mother of an illegitimate child automatically has parental responsibility (explained above), but a father does not automatically have parental responsibility if he was not married to the child's mother when the child was born;  however, he may acquire it either by entering into a parental responsibility agreement with the mother, by obtaining a parental responsibility order through the court. In the event that the mother subsequently marries the father of the child, the child will be legitimated by the marriage and will thereafter be treated as a child of the marriage. The father will then acquire parental responsibility.

If there is a dispute over the identity of the father of the child, DNA tests can be carried out to ascertain paternity; blood samples are taken from the mother, child and alleged father.

A child born or conceived during the subsistence of a valid marriage is a legitimate child and the husband of the mother is presumed to be the father of the child. This effectively means that a child conceived before a decree absolute of divorce is obtained will be presumed a legitimate child of the husband, even if the mother and her husband have been separated for a long time. This presumption can be rebutted on certain grounds and proceedings before the court will be necessary to determine whether the husband is or is not legally the father of the child.  The child would then become an illegitimate child, unless legitimated by subsequent marriage.

What rights does a father of an illegitimate child have?
As stated above, the father of an illegitimate child will not have parental responsibility. However, this can be acquired by order of the Court if not agreed between the parties. The father will also be able to apply to the Court for any of the orders set out above. If the father is granted residence a separate order of parental responsibility will be made. 

Whose surname will an illegitimate child have?
When the child's birth is registered there is no legal obligation for the father's name to be recorded and this can only be done where the mother and father have declared that the man is the father or where the father has parental responsibility.

The father and mother of an illegitiate child may choose between them what name the child will take on registration. In the absence of such agreement, where the father has been registered, the general position is that the child will take the father's surname. Where the father has not been registered the general position is that the child will take the mother's maiden name.

Useful contacts:
Relate work as counsellors and therapists with both couples and individuals, married, unmarried, gay and lesbian. Contact details:
2 Charles House
Charles Street
St Helier
Tel: (01534) 734980

Women's Refuge can be contacted by calling free on 08007 356836 or alternatively, (01534) 768368.

The Jersey Family Mediation Service provides a neutral place where both parents can meet and offers impartial fair mediators who will help you negotiate issues relating to children. Contact details:
2nd Floor
2 Charles House
Charles Street
St Helier
(01534) 638898