Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords] 08 June 2020
Volume 677 Second Reading
The new Bill is trying to remove some of the acrimony that is naturally caused by having to place blame on a partner if you wish to divorce them before the 2 year separation period has elapsed.
Some key quotes.
The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Robert Buckland)
“this Bill seeks to make the legal process less painful, less traumatic. It does not, and cannot, seek to make the decision to divorce any easier. The evidence is clear that the decision to divorce is not taken lightly or impetuously. Indeed, it is typically a protracted decision based on months, if not years, of painful and difficult experience and consideration. The sad reality is that it is often too late to save a marriage, once the legal process of divorce has started. Once that decision has been reached, the parties need to move forward constructively. The Bill focuses on that very legal process.”
“I set out at the beginning that the current law incentivises many divorcing couples to engage in proceedings that quickly become acrimonious, even if it had been the intention to divorce amicably.”
“It is not in the public interest and cannot be right that the law would encourage one parent to be pitted against the other, when we all know the deeply damaging impact that parental conflict has on children.”
“The lack of transparency and objectivity means that a spouse who is trying not to cause unnecessary hurt risks not meeting the legal threshold. That has consequences, for example, for victims of domestic abuse and can lead to the manufacture of blame between couples who might have grown apart entirely amicably.”
“they will not have to fear an abusive spouse exerting their control by contesting the divorce. This position has to be changed, and divorcing couples must be given every opportunity to avoid conflict.”
“The reform will retain irretrievable breakdown as the sole legal ground for divorce and dissolution, but replace the current requirement to evidence that with a conduct or separation fact, as outlined in the statement of irretrievable breakdown. Indeed, the statement itself will be conclusive evidence that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down; it therefore removes the possibility of contesting the decision to end that relationship, which currently only 2% of spouses do. Importantly, and for the first time, couples will be able to make a joint application where the decision to divorce is mutual. That will create a level playing field for joint applicants and encourage them to work together from the very beginning of the process.”
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab)
“Labour welcomes this Bill, which offers a common-sense approach that continues to respect the institution of marriage and civil partnerships, but avoids unnecessary antagonism and costs for people dealing with an often incredibly difficult time in their lives.”
“As Sir James pointed out in his damning judgment in the infamous case of Owens v. Owens, the requirement of many couples to evidence unreasonable behaviour can lead to farce.”
“Divorce is an unhappy event in the lives of many. It has a profound effect on families and children in particular. It is important that the law does not force couples into an adversarial contest when a breakdown in a relationship occurs, but allows and encourages them to resolve matters in a constructive way. ”
“The divorce process today is archaic and confusing to most people as they enter into an emotionally fraught process. The law forces parties who are going through a divorce to choose between evidencing one of the three fault-based facts about their partner: unreasonable behaviour, adultery or, less commonly, desertion. If neither party is willing to make such an application, the parties must separate but remain married for a period of two years, or five years if one party disputes the divorce. The option for couples today is entering into a lengthy and costly adversarial legal proceeding, or delay and legal limbo.
Both routes lead to difficulties for all and a real risk of harm to others. Couples who enter the process amicably can be quickly pulled apart by the law. There is an incentive for each party to make accusations about the other’s conduct, and that cannot be right. Some couples can easily live apart and bide their time, but for others, moving into separate accommodation without a finalised divorce and any financial settlement is impossible. That is why so many charities and campaign organisations that work with victims of domestic abuse have called for reform in this area for many years.
The new law will allow and promote conciliation and compromise. That will be of real help for families and children of broken relationships. Importantly, it will reduce legal costs that can quickly reach eye-watering sums, quite unnecessarily.”
Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab)
“First, the new law does not force couples into an adversarial dispute, but allows for an account of the breakdown in the relationship to reflect nuanced reasoning. That is provided by a simple statement. Importantly, for the first time couples will be able to make this statement jointly. In many circumstances, this will help couples to work together constructively to put a legal end to a relationship that is already broken. Indeed, the new law means that couples will now have the option of a joint application for divorce—a welcome and sensible new provision that must be good for children in particular.”
“The current law also drags out the process of separation, which can affect the vulnerable in society. Many women have reported that lengthy divorce proceedings, and the adversarial nature of them, have given an opportunity to abusers to continue to torment them. It may be claims of a lost marriage certificate, not attending court or issuing spurious cross-allegations, but a perpetrator can prolong proceedings, causing more harm. Some people’s circumstances require a faster conclusion to the legal relationship. The Bill will go some way to helping them.
More broadly, the law as it stands discriminates against those on low incomes. For some who can afford to live separately, a no-fault divorce is perfectly viable, but others must make accusations of the other’s behaviour if they cannot afford such an arrangement. The Law Commission recognised that all the way back in 1990, stating:
“It is unjust and discriminatory of the law to provide for civilised ‘no-fault’ ground for divorce, which, in practice, is denied to a large section of the population.”
“Finally, the Bill modernises the language of divorce. While a modest reform, many family practitioners in this area speak of their clients’ bewilderment at terms such as decree nisi and decree absolute. More accessible phrasing is important. It is a reminder that the law must serve all people, not just those who are legally trained.
Therefore, Labour welcomes this Bill, but these reforms must be put into context. The cuts to legal aid over the past decade mean that parties do not receive any support—none at all—in divorce proceedings, whatever their financial circumstances. In the year immediately preceding the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, 58% of parties were recorded as having legal representation in family cases that had at least one hearing, but that has reduced to just 36%, which means more people are acting as litigants in person during the divorce process.”
“She has also highlighted something else that is not fair, which is the potential for an imbalance in resources because of the lack of access if, for example, there is a wealthy applicant and a respondent without access to funds. Some studies suggest that legal fees for divorces can cost £8,000, on average. That is simply unaffordable for large groups in the population but there is no legal aid provision at all.”
Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
“It cannot be right that all too often—I say this having spoken to many practitioners in the field—the first discussions between the two parties’ solicitors will be along the lines of, “What is the minimum allegation that my client can make against you client, that will meet the test but will not cause undue offence?” That is a pretty painful, and rather sad and dishonest process for people to have to go through, and it detracts from what ought to be the real point of saying, “Can we make sure that the parties are left in the best possible position, either financially or in terms of the children?” Removing that degree of antagonism, delay, and cost seems to me a civilised thing to do.”
“I therefore welcome the Bill, and it is significant that it is supported by Resolution, which represents 6,500 family law practitioners. The Bill is also supported by every senior member of the judiciary with experience in the family field, and it chimes with my experience as a young barrister, when I did some family work before moving on to other spheres of activity.”
“The right place for any conduct to be considered is when working out arrangements thereafter; we should not be creating an antagonistic start to recognising the breakdown of the marriage, yet that has happened. If conduct is relevant—often it is not—let us consider it in the right place, and that is what the Bill does.”
“Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman of the Marriage Foundation, and a former High Court judge of the Family Division, practised family law throughout the whole of his career—again, he happens to be a practising Christian. His conclusion was that the current situation is an intolerable block on people’s ability to move on with their lives. Waiting for the five or two-year period of consent does not reflect the fact that if there has been a lengthy breakdown, people may already have met other partners or be hoping to have new families and move on. Indeed, he went further than that and said that we now have a system that drives people to lie to the court if they are not prepared to wait for two years or longer. That is wrong—we cannot have a justice system that encourages that.”
Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
“On the first objective of supporting marriage, marriage rates are at their lowest level since records began in 1862. Even more worryingly, the Marriage Foundation points out that 87% of mothers from higher income groups are married, compared with only 24% of mothers at the bottom of the income scale, so the marriage gap is widening, which is a social justice disaster. We need marriage for the many, not the few.”
Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
“I do not know whether I ought to declare an interest, because after 21 years of marriage, I am sadly in the process of going through a divorce. The primary concern of everyone who has children and is going through such an unhappy incident is the impact that it will have on their children. I think that the current legislation does lead to unnecessary additional conflict and blame, so the Government are right to pursue this important legislation at a time when they are extremely busy.”
“The Secretary of State was right to stress that wanting to assist couples to split in as amicable and blame-free a fashion as possible does not in any way undermine what marriage is all about, or fail to recognise the crucial role that that institution plays in our society.”
Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con)
“There is fault in divorce. We all know that. It is a question not just of unreasonable behaviour, but of abominable, disgraceful and outrageous behaviour. But I accept the principle of the Bill—namely, that by trying to attribute fault, we vastly magnify the bitterness and unpleasantness of the conflict that divorce creates. We have all experienced in our surgeries those parents who continue to use their children as weapons in prosecuting a continuing war against their former partners. The removal of fault will not remove that entirely, but I am confident that it will certainly diminish it.”
“We should remember that divorce is the swiftest route to poverty. ”
Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
“I assure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this is the lesson of history. If we bring in compulsory no-fault divorce in a six-month time frame, the result will be more divorces. And, as my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West said, the best way to propel women into poverty is through family breakdown and divorce. ”
Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con)
“If we really want to reduce the conflict at the end of marriages, we should reform the law around financial provisions, as one of my hon. Friends said earlier, and improve child custody arrangements. These are really the sources of conflict, not the terms of the divorce.”
Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
“Ministers argue that the Bill will “remove the conflict flashpoints” inherent within the current legal process and
“minimise the potential for couples to entrench positions against each other”.
That simply fails to address the fact that conflict exists and is frequently exacerbated during negotiations relating to financial settlements and childcare arrangements, which the Bill does nothing to address. Ask any family lawyer, and they will tell you so. I spoke with one only today, who told me that he knows of no practising family lawyer enthusing about the Bill.”
Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
“One of the greatest assets of becoming a Member of Parliament is that you can speak on matters that you have experienced first-hand and matters that have affected you deeply. For those who have actually experienced a long, protracted and acrimonious divorce, it leaves an indelible mark on them and, in many cases, on their families and children forever.”
“However, as the Lord Chancellor set out, the Government have brought the Bill before us with a specific aim: to ease the unnecessary conflict for couples and children.”
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
“There should not have to be blame on one of the two consenting adults wishing to end their marriage, and as we have heard, it is significantly better for any children involved that their parents are not embroiled in a nasty split.”
“However, reconciliation is made even more difficult if they have to blame each other in order to start the divorce process. What must run through our divorce procedures is the aim of encouraging co-operation, and what we have now is a system that encourages conflict. When there are issues to do with financial support and childcare, the last thing we should want for that family is more conflict and unnecessary hurt.”
“This is not a fair system and it is certainly not a decent one either. It can also be costly, with thousands of pounds spent on legal costs that could have been retained by the individuals and used to help them to get on with their lives. ”
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
“This Bill is not anti-marriage; rather, it is anti-bitterness. In those sad cases where a marriage has irretrievably broken down, the Bill removes unnecessary and artificial flashpoints to reduce the scope for pain, recrimination and, crucially, harmful impact on children. We must accept the reality that some marriages do end. The Bill replaces a broken system which for decades has not operated as its framers intended. I note that it is supported by Resolution, which represents over 6,000 family justice professionals in England and Wales who have to grapple with the current framework every day.”
“For separating parents, it can be much more difficult to focus on the needs of their children when they have to prove a fault-based fact against their former partner… Introducing a ‘no-fault’ divorce…will change the way couples obtain a divorce—for the better.”
“Part of the problem is that the court has limited means to investigate the circumstances. Having marched the parties up to the top of the hill by requiring petitioners to make allegations, the system rarely inquires into whether those allegations are true. It simply does not have the means to do so.”
“That lack of inquiry is a problem because allegations may bear little resemblance to reality, but they are presented as established facts. The scope for injustice is obvious. To satisfy the statutory provisions, minor incidents may have to be dredged up and artificially repackaged as a pattern of behaviour. A respondent who, in truth, is a perfectly reasonable individual will have their behaviour branded unreasonable. Conversely, a respondent may have behaved despicably—a point made by the Lord Chancellor —but because of the fear of repercussions, a petitioner may seek to rely on two years’ separation instead. At the end of it all, in the eyes of the law, the culpable respondent will never have been publicly rebuked, and will exit the relationship apparently blameless. All too often, the law does not do what people think it does. That is not just the Government’s view. Sir Paul Coleridge, a former family judge and chair of the Marriage Foundation, no less, said that the current system “is, and always has been, a sham”.
“This Bill prevents hardship and misery, and it will help people at a vulnerable time. I commend this Bill to the House.”