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Divorce (Child Custody)

Volume 114: debated on Monday 6 April 1987

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44.

asked the Attorney-General what information he has about the average time taken in settling disputes in divorce cases over the custody of children.

For an application estimated to last half a day, the average time between the issue of the application and the hearing is seven weeks. For an application estimated to last one day, the average is eight weeks. Expedition is possible in urgent cases on application to the court.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that with 160,000 children under 17 being involved in divorce cases annually, all too often it is they who are the innocent, inarticulate and often unrepresented parties who pay the price? Will he look at the Law Commission's recent working document, which suggests that disputes often take over six months to settle? That may be long for an adult, but it can be almost a lifetime for a child. Will he consider imposing a time limit in those cases?

My hon. Friend, who sits as a magistrate and knows a great deal about cases such as this, is absolutely right when she says that it is children who suffer as a result of delays. The Government will not reach a decision in advance of a final report from the Law Commission, and the commission itself is awaiting responses from the public and various organisations which have been consulted on its working paper.

Is the Solicitor-General aware that one of the reasons for the delay in custody cases is the extreme difficulty of arranging conciliation appointments, because of the shortage of court welfare officers to carry out those appointments? Will he take steps to ensure that more court welfare officers are appointed quickly so that that part of the process can at least be dealt with?

The hon. and learned Gentleman is right to say that one of the factors causing delay between inception and determination of these cases is the need to get welfare reports. I shall draw the attention of my noble Friend the Lord Chancellor to this point.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that the Law Commission expedites its recommendation, as this matter is causing considerable concern? What is the time scale likely to be before its deliberations come before him?

I am sure that it is necessary that there is a considered final report from the Law Commission, but I do not think that my hon. and learned Friend would wish that to precede careful consideration of the responses to the consultation.

Is the Solicitor-General aware—I am sure he is—that the answers that he is giving in response to this question are the reason why there is so much support for the family courts campaign? What is the Government's attitude to that campaign? Will we have a debate on family courts in Government time?

A family court would not of itself cure the problem of delay, but I agree with the implication of the hon. Gentleman's question—that the setting up of family courts would provide the opportunity for reviewing procedures. The Government are considering the position in the light of the responses to the consultation paper on family and domestic jurisdiction, which was published last year.