Chaired by Christiane Wendehorst, Professor of Law at the University of Vienna, this panel presented the ELI project 'Empowering European Families: Towards more Party Autonomy in European Family and Succession Law.' The project, adopted by Council Decision 2015/8, aims at reducing obstacles faced by international families in the EU, in particular at providing a higher degree of certainty and predictability of results, reducing the costs of litigation in matters of family and succession law, and promoting family mediation in the EU.

Christiane Wendehorst described different scenarios, explaining that international couples moving their families abroad were 'flying blindly into a storm of unexpected legal effects.' Ensuring the early choice of court and of applicable law within the framework of existing (and future) private international law instruments could avoid many of these. Professor Wendehorst called for the need to develop the European Model Dispositions concerning, in particular, choice of court and choice of law, as well as particular agreements concerning substantive family law.

Wendy Schrama, Professor of Family Law at the University of Groningen, further explained that the ELI project would develop a model marriage agreement that would include private international law clauses and conditions of substantive law. The project would also develop model cohabitation agreements on the rights and duties of informal partners. According to Professor Schrama, combining party autonomy in private international law and in substantive family law could have an empowering effect on families.

The topic of international family mediation was also discussed during the panel. Kerstin Bartsch, legal expert and former family mediator, explained the advantages of mediation when compared to a lawsuit. According to Ms Bartsch, mediation should be encouraged, for instance by preparing a model agreement for mediation.

Richard Frimston, solicitor and notary public, provided another practitioner’s perspective and added insights into the UK´s approach to party autonomy in family law matters. In his view, preparing agreements on how to deal with potential future legal disputes in advance makes it easier to handle them once they occur. Therefore, party autonomy is crucial and needs to be encouraged. He stressed that any model dispositions the ELI project team will prepare would need to be simple and accessible.

Michael Shotter, Head of the Civil Justice Policy Unit at the Directorate General of Justice and Consumers of the European Commission, referred to divorces and pointed out that the cross-jurisdiction factor adds a level of complexity to an already painful situation. He emphasised that the European Commission is currently working on the revision of the Brussels IIa Regulation and the revised text is expected to include a possibility for the parties to choose the competent court.