Relocating with children following family breakdown and the impact of COVID-19 and Brexit

These days we routinely read news pieces about people leaving London. For example “2020 saw record number of homebuyers move out of London as Covid sparks exodus from city life” and ‘the population of the U.K.’s capital city could fall in 2021 for the first time in more than 30 years… as the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic prompts people to reconsider big-city life’’. [U.K. economic outlook report by PwC, released in January 2021]

The family team at Kingsley Napley regularly advises clients who wish to relocate to a different city or country or oppose the other parent’s plans to relocate. Given the reported trends and the challenges our clients are faced with, we are writing a series of blogs around the theme of relocation for separated couples including:-

  • Schooling – what happens when one parent wishes to change the child’s school?
  • Relocating elsewhere in England or Wales
  • Relocating to Scotland
  • Relocating abroad
  • Relocating to a European country – including related financial concerns since Brexit
  • Relocation in high conflict cases
  • The risks for a failed relocation case
  • Defending a relocation case
  • Non court options for relocation

Recently, there have been reports of wealthy London residents moving to their second homes in the country or renting substantial country homes, something which I have seen directly, with clients and contacts. Reports show a boom in the country property market while the London property market has slowed down; a report by Savills in December 2020 noting that buyers are actively seeking “a lifestyle shift and recognising the relative value on offer“. No surprise given how much more can be bought with the proceeds of your London home outside of the capital. Even properties in Scotland (as well as the Cotswolds and prime coastal properties) have enjoyed particularly active markets during 2020. One only needs to look at the property pages of the Sunday papers for many of us (myself included!) to dream of living in a lovely pad in the country. And while the majority of those who are moving out of London are moving to local counties, others are taking the step of moving further field and out of the UK altogether, for example to homes in France. According to a report dated 14 January 2021 by the UK’s Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence think-tank, as many as 1.3 million people born abroad left the UK in just over a year (from July 2019 to September 2020), with over half apparently leaving the capital. If accurate, that would mean the city had lost nearly eight % of its population in a little more than 14 months with many citing Brexit as a main reason as well as the pandemic.

The pandemic has been a game changer in how the majority of us work, with most still working remotely and City companies and firms planning for the ‘new normal’ what and whenever that might be. Current indications show that many will want to return to a hybrid way of working, with many employees wishing to return two or three days a week at the most. As challenging as remote working has been for lots of us with the lack of contact with our colleagues, and the stresses of home schooling, on the plus side people are seeing the real benefits of working remotely in terms of work/life balance, including avoiding long commutes or being able to spend more time with their children. With a significant level of remote working looking as though it is here to stay, parents are feeling there is no reason to stay permanently in London, and they can also avoid the competitive battle of London’s highly selective schools with numerous good private schools outside London.

As is always the case, societal trends and changes have a big impact on the kind of issues that we come across as family lawyers when we deal with separating parents, including when one parent wants to move away from London. For those couples who are already living apart or negotiating the terms of their separation, we have seen a real change in the arrangements that parents are agreeing for their children with the more traditional model of the main breadwinner spending alternative weekends (and possibly one day a week) with their children being replaced by a more flexible arrangement and often something that is closer to a 50/50 model of shared parenting.

When both parents are working from home, flexibly, the typical discussions about long commutes into the centre of London and extended hours in the office preventing a shared co-parenting arrangement have a lot less merit. And for those international clients who are living in or around London and have not been able to see their families for many, many months, due to the pandemic and the closure of borders and flights, it has been particularly hard. With the pull of the family ties, many have had cause to re-think whether they want to remain living in the UK.

It is too early to tell the impact of Brexit on the London economy but reports since the Brexit vote in 2016 have long anticipated the risk of headquarters of banks and financial services moving abroad. While only time will determine the extent of the impact, there is clearly a question mark as to whether London will remain as a global economic hub and whether London will retain its reputation as ‘divorce capital of the world’ (in part generated largely by the amount of foreign nationals resident here). And on the subject of divorce, Brexit has also had a significant impact on family law since the ‘first to issue’/race to court’ came to an end on 31 December 2020 and we stopped applying EU law.

For any parent thinking of relocating away from London internally or externally (abroad), or indeed defending a relocation application, there are a significant amount of issues to consider, both in relation to the arrangements for the children but also the financial aspects. It is important to have a clear strategy at the outset taking into account all aspects before embarking on discussions with the other parent or issuing court proceedings. Relocation proceedings, particularly to a country outside the jurisdiction, can be difficult to compromise and as a result can be highly contested so any plan needs to be properly thought out and other non-court avenues of resolution explored first.

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