Clause 1: Divorce: removal of requirement to establish facts etc
1: Clause 1, page 1, leave out lines 6 to 15 and insert—
“(1) Subject to subsections (1) and (2), either or both parties to a marriage may apply to the court to initiate the process for an order (a “divorce order”).(2) In the case of an application by both parties to the marriage under subsection (1)— (a) the application must be accompanied by a statement by the applicants that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, and(b) the court must—(i) take the statement given under subsection (2)(a) to be conclusive evidence that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, and(ii) make a divorce order which will dissolve the marriage.(3) In the case of an application under subsection (1) that is to proceed as an application by one party to the marriage only—(a) an application must be accompanied by an initial statement by the applicant of their intention to seek a conditional order on the basis that the marriage may have broken down;(b) a confirmation by the applicant under subsection (5)(a) that they wish the application to continue must be accompanied by a statement that the marriage has broken down irretrievably; and(c) the court dealing with an application made by one party under this subsection and subsection (5)(a) must—(i) take the statement given under subsection (3)(b) to be conclusive evidence that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, and(ii) make a divorce order which will dissolve the marriage.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment sets out different steps in the divorce process, depending upon whether the application is a joint application by both parties to the marriage, or an application by only one party.
My Lords, Amendment 1 is a redrafted form of the amendment that I brought before the House in Committee. I have returned to this issue because, as I read and reflected on the Committee debate, I was not at all assured that my concerns had been addressed. In coming back to this issue, I make it clear that I will not be dividing the House on this amendment, but I hope this debate will provide an opportunity for the Minister to address my concerns. I put on record my sincere thanks to him for the useful meeting that we had yesterday to discuss this and my other amendment.
I will begin by defining the problems that the amendment is designed to address and will then explain how it deals with them. I welcome that the Bill allows people to make joint applications for divorce for the first time. For these couples, the divorce will come as no surprise. However, the negative impact of the Bill on respondents where there is no fault is profound.
Under the current system, in the absence of fault, the couple must have lived apart for two to five years before proceeding to divorce. Clearly, on this basis no one would claim to be surprised at the divorce application. In the case of the two-year separation, the divorce application must be by mutual consent, and anyone who claims to be shocked at receiving divorce papers after five years’ separation is not credible. Under the Bill, however, all this will change for the respondent in this no-fault context. One day, they could be thinking that their marriage is all right, and the next day they could be faced with a declaration of irretrievable breakdown and the fact that they could be divorced within six months or even sooner if they are not notified at the start of the reflection period. I am particularly concerned about the greater insecurity that this will inevitably bring to many marriages, and the attendant psychological cost. In case anyone was to think that this might be a very small number, I remind the House that the circumstances I am describing —namely, the two to five-year separation period—are used in around two-fifths of divorce petitions each year. That is around 40,000 divorces: 40,000 respondents who today must receive some warning, but who under the Bill need receive no warning at all.
There is all the difference in the world between a divorce where both parties agree and seek it together, and a divorce initiated by one party only, perhaps with the other party not even knowing. The Bill, however, deals with the two largely as if they are the same. That does not seem just or fair. My amendment seeks to address this presenting problem by requiring that where a divorce application is not made jointly by mutual agreement, a different approach is adopted. I propose a change to the wording in new Clause 1(1), which currently says that the applicant is applying for a divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown. I suggest instead that new Clause 1(1) refers only to the applicants initiating the divorce proceedings.
I then suggest a two-track scenario. Where there is a joint application, the initial application includes a statement saying that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. Where the application is by one party only, the applicant is required to make two statements. The first, on applying for a divorce, would state that the applicant’s intention was to apply for a conditional order, which they would have to do under subsection (5), on the basis that the marriage may have broken down. The statement of irretrievable breakdown would then accompany the application for a conditional order 20 weeks after the first application if the petitioner wished to proceed to the next stage.
There are two main rationales for my amendment. First, it means that someone who wants to end the marriage cannot suddenly drop a bombshell on his or her spouse that their marriage—which she or he may have thought was all right—has actually irretrievably broken down. The first move the petitioner can make is a declaration that he intends to apply for a conditional order on the basis that he thinks the marriage may have broken down, not that it has already broken down irretrievably. This has the effect of requiring him to treat his spouse with greater respect, in the sense that the statement he makes to her is not one that says emphatically “It is all over” such that there are no grounds upon which she can respond and seek to save the marriage.
The Bill proposes to remove from the respondent the right to contest a divorce. In this context, it is only right that if the spouse who joined them in making a “till death us do part” commitment wishes to move towards disengaging himself from that commitment, he must do so in a way that affords his spouse some respect. This must involve giving her the opportunity—should she wish to take it—to make the case for why the marriage is saveable and worth saving, before it is condemned by a final statement of irretrievable breakdown.
When I raised this matter previously, some noble Lords suggested that it was patronising because I was questioning the decision of those who wanted to divorce. One could, however, make that comment only if one was viewing this process entirely from the perspective of the petitioner. I am not. I am not trying to prevent the petitioner divorcing if that is what he wants. I am simply reminding the House that on a previous occasion the petitioner made a “till death us do part” commitment to his spouse and that in extricating himself from that serious commitment, he should be encouraged to afford his spouse some respect.
Secondly, changing the initial statement is important if we are really serious about trying to promote reconciliation during the divorce process. The Government have stated clearly on numerous occasions that their purpose is to seek to promote reconciliation within the divorce process. In their response to the consultation, for instance, they stated:
“Sometimes, a marriage will still be reparable at the point at which one spouse seeks the divorce … But the law can—and should—have a role in providing couples with an opportunity to reflect on that momentous decision and to pull back from the brink if they decide that reconciliation is achievable.”
The Government further observe in the family impact assessment:
“The current law works against reconciliation by incentivising (in order to get a divorce more quickly) a spouse to make allegations about the other spouse’s conduct which can create conflict.”
They further state that they want to exploit the new opportunities for reconciliation under the no-fault system:
“We want to create conditions for couples and parents to reconcile if they can”.
It is because of this that there is a 20-week reflection period.
The Government describe, on page 31 of the Reducing Family Conflict consultation, the lodging of the petition as putting the marriage “on notice”, during which there is a 20-week period that the Government have called “the reflection period”, and that we do not even reach the point of applying for a conditional order until after that period. This being the case, it seems completely unnecessary to require the lodging of a statement of irretrievable breakdown until the moment of formally applying for the conditional order. Indeed, the decision to ask people to make a declaration of irretrievable breakdown at the start of the process seems not only unnecessary but like an attempt to needlessly sabotage the reconciliation potential of the reflection period. Some might respond by saying that at the moment that the divorce process begins, with a definitive statement, the marriage has broken down. In the context of a fault-based system, I can see why it must. In the context of the new “without fault” system before us today, however, I can see no logical reason why this must be so and many logical reasons, which I have highlighted, why we should insist on a statement of irretrievable breakdown only when applying for the conditional order.
The law today begins a divorce process with a statement of irretrievable breakdown only because that is what the law says. The law, however, can be changed; it is being changed through the Bill and should be changed further through amendment, if we are serious about exploiting the greater opportunities to facilitate reconciliation in a no-fault system. On this point, the Nuffield report was very helpful when it stated that under a system where one party is notified of the intention to divorce, as proposed by the Bill, there is also the possibility that notification would be more facilitative of reconciliation. Notification certainly could be facilitative of reconciliation if we did not condemn the reflection period to failure at the outset by unnecessarily asking one couple to make a statement of irretrievable breakdown 20 weeks before they can apply for a conditional order.
The Minister suggested to me yesterday that if we were to move to a situation where the process commences with a statement that the marriage may have broken down, it might result in speculative divorces. That thought is of course itself speculative, but I would not be opposed to replacing “may” with “has”, if that would help. My point is that if we start with a definitive statement from one party that the marriage has broken down irretrievably, we are losing the opportunity for greater reconciliation that a no-fault system provides. That is to miss an obvious opportunity. That statement should not be made until after the reflection period. If the Government do not like this solution, what will they do instead to address the problems that I have set out in my speech today? I beg to move.
My Lords, I am pleased to support Amendment 1, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord McColl. I continue to be concerned about the lack of regard for the respondent demonstrated in this legislation.
In the first instance, respondents lose their right to contest the divorce and thus, in an important sense, their voice. In the second instance, as the noble Lord has already said, respondents are severely disadvantaged in a no-fault context when compared with respondents in the same position under the current law, because the two to five-year warning of a statement of irretrievable breakdown is taken from them; they are exposed to a potential statement of irretrievable breakdown without any warning. In the third instance, respondents are not even afforded security about enjoying access to a 20-week reflection period. It is thus entirely possible that they will not be told about the divorce until the end of that period, and thus be confronted with not only a potentially out-of-the-blue statement of irretrievable breakdown but the possibility of being divorced in just seven weeks from first hearing about the divorce.
In the context of this assault on the rights and dignity of the respondent, Amendment 1 helps in two ways. First, rather than requiring the divorce process to begin with a statement of irretrievable breakdown, which makes it very hard for the respondent to respond because the petitioner is saying very emphatically “It is all over”, the initial statement proposed by Amendment 1 would create a context in which there can be a conversation and the respondent’s voice can be heard. Of course, this does not mean that the respondent will be able to change the mind of the petitioner should they wish to try to persuade them that their marriage is savable, but at least it provides them with a credible opportunity for doing so.
Secondly, the initial statement proposed by the amendment does not condemn the reflection period to likely failure by commencing with a statement that suggests, with great finality, that there is no way the marriage can be saved. It might be necessary to start a divorce process on the basis of a statement of irretrievable breakdown within a fault-based system, but if we are to realise the objectives set out by the family test assessment to use the no-fault system to create a basis from which one can foster conditions that better promote reconciliation, this is a terrible missed opportunity. It also misses out on the opportunity highlighted on page 164 of the Nuffield Foundation report that notification in a non-fault-based system
“would be more facilitative of reconciliation.”
I hope that the Government will support the amendment or come back with an alternative means of restoring dignity to the respondent and making the most of the new opportunities in a no-fault system to promote reconciliation.
My Lords, I spent 50 years in family law and I have some experience of dealing with parents who are at odds with each other. I have seen the impact on their children. I am very relieved to hear that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, for whom I have the greatest respect, does not wish to test the opinion of the House. I respect and understand his good intentions and those of others putting forward amendments today, but if they passed they would hinder rather than enhance the process of this excellent Bill.
Amendment 1 is opposed by family lawyers, many of whom have great experience of dealing in family cases. It assumes incorrectly that when the existing divorce process was not completed in some 50-odd cases out of about 300 it was due to reconciliation. I think we were told in Committee that only one of those was an attempted reconciliation. The others were procedural problems. There is no evidence to support the view that a period of reflection, suggested by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, would in fact create more reconciliation than starting with the application, as put forward by the Government.
For most divorcing spouses the petition does not come at the beginning of something going wrong. My experience certainly is that it comes towards the end, when efforts have been made on both sides to have reconciliation. It is a very serious step and one that is not taken lightly. I also have to say that it is very unlikely that the respondent is taken by surprise. He or she is almost certain to know that the marriage is not going well. I find it inconceivable that a speculative application could be made by somebody right out of the blue when the marriage appears to the other spouse to be working perfectly well.
If irretrievable breakdown is the ground of divorce, as, indeed, the Bill requires, the proposed amendment is entirely inconsistent with it, because that is the way the application would come before the court. Whatever you have to call it, the application is for a divorce at some point. The three-stage process would make it much more complicated and would probably be confusing for many people.
One particular group of people is not in fact taken into account, if the noble Lord, Lord McColl, will forgive me for saying so: spouses escaping abusive marriages. If there has to be this period before you can even apply for a divorce, the opportunities for intimidation, coercion and other behaviours against the escaping spouse—unless they go to a refuge—would mean that this measure would make life infinitely worse for them. The noble Lord has not referred to that group. Again, according to the research done by Exeter University and the Nuffield Foundation, people have said that it is time that the state respected and did not second-guess the decisions of parties to a failed marriage.
I am also quite surprised that the noble Lord did not refer to civil partnerships. Since civil partnerships now follow exactly the same rules as marriage under current legislation, this measure would put marriage in a completely different situation to civil partnerships. That must be unsatisfactory so I strongly oppose the amendment, but I am relieved to know that it will not go to a vote.
My Lords, I support what the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said. Although I have absolute sympathy with the well-intentioned objectives of my noble friend Lord McColl, I fear that they will fall far short of what any practitioner can deliver.
Speaking from the coalface, when a person books an appointment with a divorce solicitor, it is often in absolute trepidation and recognition that they have failed. Sending that person away means, if I might say so, that we are getting into a situation like talaq, where you say, “I divorce you, I divorce you”, then the third time, you say, “Yes, you are divorced.” Putting down a warning in circumstances where there may be violence and it may have taken a great deal of courage to come to the conclusion that the marriage is over would, in my experience, just be delaying the evil day.
As we have seen in our recent politics with Brexit, as we are seeing now with coronavirus and as we see with marriage and its breakdown, uncertainty is a set of very disturbing circumstances, the innocent victims of which are children. Children need certainty. Often, when they know that their parents’ marriage is on the rocks, they are relieved to find some sort of consensus to sort out the problems that have been going on in their house for some time. Dignified separation without naming and shaming and blaming can only be to their advantage. I wonder how many of those who marry people look at two people whom they know are fundamentally incompatible and have the courage to say, “I will not marry you because I think that this will end in disaster.”
It takes only one party to get divorced, not two; one person can check out of the marriage and there is simply nothing that the other party can do to make them change their view. This amendment would delay what is in most circumstances an inevitable consequence. There is nothing to stop responsible practitioners suggesting that a couple try harder, go to mediation or have help, but to suggest that a practitioner or the law can keep together a marriage that has fundamentally failed is pie in the sky. The sooner the consequences of a fallout can be sorted, the better it is for everybody.
My Lords, I associate myself totally with the wise and experienced words of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton. I can well remember our discussion in Committee about the petitioner “thinking” that the relationship “may” have irretrievably broken down. This amendment inserts a third stage into the process. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, who is hugely experienced in the field of divorce, said, along with others, that in their experience, by the time someone files for divorce, it is not done lightly and their mind is made up. If there was a possibility that the marriage was retrievable, they would have explored it before filing.
I think that this step is unnecessary. The timeframes as set out in the Bill are appropriate, so adding another stage would not be helpful. Therefore, we will not support this amendment.
My Lords, I would suggest that there are two issues behind the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and I am not sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, have really addressed them. One is whether there should be a sort of extended time period—“I think the marriage may have broken down”—to allow for reconciliation, while the other is the situation where a woman is pretty certain that her marriage has broken down. She is living apart from her husband with her children, but she still has some hope. Then, out of the blue, a note comes through, perhaps rather late in the day, that her husband has actually petitioned for divorce.
I think that outside of this House there is quite a widespread worry about what the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has called the rights and the dignity of a person in that situation. I accept all the other arguments that have been put forward, but will the Government address the situation where something might come, if not as a total surprise then as rather a bitter blow that it should have reached this stage and the party has heard about it so late?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has intimated that he will not be testing the opinion of the House on this matter, but nevertheless, I rise to support Amendment 1. There are some things worth saying in relation to this important amendment and on this very important issue.
The noble Lord listened carefully to the previous debate and his new amendment now seeks only to avoid use of the term “irretrievable breakdown”—nothing more, nothing less—at the start of a divorce application when it is made by one party to a marriage. Where the couple have decided by mutual agreement, and it is clear that they have discussed the matter in advance and come to a view, this amendment does not propose a different statement at the start of the procedure from that which is made on actually applying for the conditional order. This is positive for two reasons. First, it means that the amendment focuses on the particular group of people who are likely to be disadvantaged by this Bill: namely, the respondents in the case of a unilateral divorce application in the absence of fault.
As the noble Lord explained, under the current system, around 40% of divorces are made in the absence of fault through a prior period of separation of either two years in cases where there is agreement or five years in cases of disagreement. In the context of these divorces, at present the respondent gets at least two years’ warning before the statement of irretrievable breakdown can be made. Under the Bill, they could get no warning at all and they will also lose their right to contest the divorce, which is a double whammy, truncating their rights on two fronts simultaneously.
Before I talk about the important service that Amendment 1 provides in addressing these difficulties, I would like to comment briefly on them, and particularly on their political significance.
The noble Lord, Lord McColl, expressed his worry about the psychological impact of the heightened insecurity that the Bill will visit on some marriages. People in marriages today who judge that it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that their spouse might suggest divorce, although neither party has committed adultery or behaved unreasonably, know that, even if they were unable to persuade their spouse to change their mind, they could not have a declaration of irretrievable breakdown visited on them for at least two years. There is in this a certain security, which this Bill will remove for 40% of current divorces.
It seems strange that the Government should want to associate with such a proposal. Last year, before the general election, the Conservative think tank Onward published its seminal paper The Politics of Belonging, which suggested that if the party was to win the election it must seek to engage with “Workington Man”. One of the central arguments of the report is that, having for many years prioritised freedom, the public now attach greater importance to security. On the basis of its extensive polling, the report stated that,
“by a ratio of 2-to-1, voters want to live in a society that provides greater security not greater freedom.”
It is this realignment of focus away from being primarily about freedom to a far greater emphasis on security that causes the report to argue that what is needed now is the “politics of belonging”—greater togetherness rather than greater separation.
In this context, the Bill before us today, the practical impact of which is to emphasise greater freedom for the petitioner and greater insecurity for the respondent, seems strangely out of place. Amendment 1 restores some dignity and security to the respondent by ensuring that they will not be presented with a statement of irretrievable breakdown right at the start of the process, potentially as a bolt from the blue. This means that, while they will understand that their marriage has been put on notice, they will not be presented with a form of words suggesting that it is all over from the outset.
This has two benefits. First, it treats them more gently and with greater dignity than moving straight to a statement of irretrievable breakdown. Secondly, while not restoring to the respondent a right to contest the divorce, it restores to them the opportunity to have a voice. If you present them with a statement of irretrievable breakdown, you are effectively telling them that it is all over and preventing them having a voice. If, by contrast, they are told that the marriage is on notice and that in 20 weeks a statement of irretrievable breakdown will be made unless they can persuade their spouse that their relationship is worth saving, they will at least have an opportunity to respond constructively.
Another reason this amendment is very positive is that it helps the Government fulfil their stated objective to promote reconciliation in the divorce process. This is significant because, having recognised that the current law makes reconciliation harder, the family test assessment in the new law states:
“We want to create conditions for couples and parents to reconcile if they can.”
Under the current law, which is based on fault, one has to begin the divorce process with a declaration of irretrievable breakdown because it involves citing adultery or unreasonable behaviour.
However, in considering a new system where one does not need to prove fault, that is not necessary. We have the opportunity to bring forward new legislation and therein a new approach. Given the stated commitment to foster better conditions to promote reconciliation than we have at the moment, an obvious place to start is this amendment and its proposal not to make a statement of irretrievable breakdown until after the reflection period when applying for the conditional order.
On this point I note that the Nuffield report—which some have quoted selectively to justify not prioritising reconciliation during the divorce process—states that, under a system where one party is notified of the intention to divorce, as proposed by this Bill,
“there is also the possibility that notification would be more facilitative of reconciliation.”
In other words, we should recognise that, in moving to the new system, there is the potential for greater scope for reconciliation than under the current system, because of the notification system.
Finally, it seems that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, has managed through the amendment to identify a means to use non-fault notification that is more facilitative of reconciliation. In this context, to reject the amendment because, up until this point, the divorce process had always started with a statement of irretrievable breakdown would be very odd, given that the whole point of this exercise is to change divorce law. I very much hope that the Government will not dismiss the amendment but give it proper consideration.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord McColl of Dulwich and other noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. As my noble friend observed, the amendment would keep the existing ground of irretrievable breakdown at the start of the application only where the application was made by both spouses. Where the application was made by only one party, it would remove the ground of irretrievable breakdown, which has stood for 50 years, in favour of the novel concept of a ground that may or may not be the case.
I am aware that there has been a narrative of the divorce application coming as a shock to the respondent, but, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, observed in Committee, and repeated this afternoon,
“the evidence from the research is that the majority of people know perfectly well when a marriage has irretrievably broken down.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 532.]
They know when it has come to an end. The proposed amendment would hinder, not enhance, the process of divorce. Indeed, my noble and learned friend, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, observed in Committee that
“once you have applied, you have carried out the intent.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 535.]
That point was reflected in a number of observations made by the noble and learned Baroness this afternoon.
The Government remain firmly of the view that an application for divorce is precisely that: an application seeking the legal dissolution of the marriage by the court because it has broken down irretrievably. A divorce application cannot be a notice to the other party that there may be marital difficulties. That is not a proper use of the court process. The legal process of divorce is not a remedy for marital discord but a means to dissolve the legal ties at the end of a marriage. As I observed in response to the amendment to similar effect tabled by my noble friend Lord McColl in Committee, such an amendment would have the potentially perverse effect of encouraging speculative applications. These are not effects that the Government wish in any way to encourage.
The reality is that under the existing law, which allows only sole applications, the application is made on the ground of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage right at the start, and well before the court takes account of the evidence for fault or separation. There is no reason to change that. I accept that my noble friend Lord McColl wishes to allow for reconciliation where one spouse wishes to divorce and perhaps the other does not, but the Government’s conclusion is that to amend the law in this way would not achieve his purpose and would in fact send entirely the wrong signals to divorcing couples. It is in these circumstances that I invite my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate. I have great respect for all of them. I have enormous respect for the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss—we have known each other for more than 70 years, so it is quite easy to. I thank everyone for taking part. I hear what the Minister said. I think that it will be taken up in another place with some enthusiasm. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
2: Clause 1, page 1, leave out lines 9 to 15 and insert—
“(2) On an application for a divorce order the court must inquire, so far as it reasonably can, into—(a) the facts alleged by the applicant or applicants, and(b) if the application is by one party to the marriage only, any facts alleged by the respondent.(3) The court hearing an application for a divorce order must not hold that the marriage has broken down irretrievably unless the applicant or applicants satisfy the court of one or more of the facts described in subsection (3A), in which case it must make a divorce order.(3A) The facts referred to in subsection (3) are— (a) if the application is by both parties to the marriage, that the applicants have lived apart for a continuous period of at least one year immediately preceding the making of the application;(b) if the application is by one party to the marriage only—(i) that the respondent has behaved in such a way that the applicant cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent, including where the respondent has committed adultery;(ii) that the applicant and the respondent have lived apart for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the making of the application;(iii) that the respondent has deserted the applicant for a continuous period of at least two years immediately preceding the making of the application.”
My Lords, I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group. It is not at all the norm for me to table amendments that appear to strike at the heart of what the Government, on whose Benches I sit, are trying to achieve. It is not something that I relish in any way. However, I feel compelled to keep challenging the introduction of no-fault divorce in this country. This is, in fact, because I support the two key principles set out in the original consultation paper and do not believe that removing the ability to cite fault fulfils them.
Those principles are, first, that the decision to divorce continues to be a considered one, giving spouses the opportunity to change course, and, secondly, that spouses are not put through legal requirements that do not serve their or the state’s interests and can lead to ongoing conflict and poor outcomes for children.
I realise that the various Front-Bench justice spokespersons, many of whom are lawyers, are for this Bill. However, I have become aware that many Back-Benchers and even some Front-Benchers are not truly cognisant of its contents and implications. I have a great respect for the legal profession but it is deliberate and appropriate that this House welcomes and appreciates those from different backgrounds who can provide a wider view.
The purpose of all my amendments—2, 5A, 6A, which supersedes Amendment 6, and 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12—is to retain the good things in this Bill and reject the bad. I am referring to those elements which I do not think will serve the best interests of families in our country. They aim better to fulfil the laudable principles with which the Government embarked on divorce reform. My amendments will retain the option for both parties in the marriage or civil partnership to make a joint application for a divorce, judicial separation or dissolution. They will also retain the minimum time period before which a divorce or dissolution cannot be granted. I heard what my noble and learned friend Lord Keen said about many fault-based divorces taking less time than the six months currently proposed.
My amendments would also retain the ability in the current law to cite fault to obtain a divorce or dissolution and to contest a divorce. I know that this happens rarely and that only 2% of respondents state intention to defend, with fewer than half of these going through the formal process. I also know that the number contesting may be less than 1,000 every year and that many are resisting the particulars of unreasonable behaviour and other fault-based facts. However, some will be trying to keep their marriage vows alive by resisting being unilaterally divorced.
At least the current law enables them to mount that defence. The removal of this facility ushers in, de jure, unilateral divorce with the full approval of the state. This is justified on the dubious grounds that we already have unilateral divorce de facto. This is where a reluctant respondent, who might have much preferred to attempt reconciliation, is more or less forced to accept that their marriage is over when fault facts of dubious veracity are used to establish the ground for divorce. Would it not be better to curtail the motivation and ability of people to do this through the minimum time limits proposed in the Bill and by significantly reducing the separation periods with and without consent so that they more closely resemble the Scottish system? That is what my amendments would also achieve.
A couple could jointly apply after one year’s separation. There would then be another six months to run, during which time, one hopes, much progress could be made on real areas of conflict—finances and children. A sole applicant could apply after just two years’ separation. In 2015-16, only 6% of divorces in Scotland were fault based because of these other remedies.
I have already alluded to the support of noble and learned Members of this House for the more draconian measures proposed in the Bill, so I know what I am up against, and I have very rarely experienced in this House an argument that has changed people’s minds. I still want to take the time to explain why I believe that these amendments will more adequately fulfil the Government’s stated principles.
On the first principle—
“that the decision to divorce continues to be a considered one, giving spouses the opportunity to change course”—
how does a sole application leading to a divorce after a 20-week reflection period, plus six weeks, achieve this? Leaving aside the important issue of both parties having the full extent of that period, I simply ask noble Lords whether no-fault divorce really does allow for reflection.
If fault is discarded, people can simply go online, late at night, after what may have been a rather trivial or resolvable argument—or possibly too many drinks—and apply within minutes. The irretrievable breakdown of the marriage would, in effect, be proven by the impetuous completion of that form. As one mediator writing on the Family Law website expressed it:
“Our culture has changed, and we must be alive to the unalterable fact that our online world can eliminate vital processing and reflection time.”
To those who argue that online completion allows that already anyway, I say this. The need to cite a fault fact will in itself be a moment of pause, even a deterrent, for many who might be all too well aware when they are doing so that their spouse could counter-accuse them of far worse.
I have also been told that it is patronising to suggest that those who come through the door, particularly of our top lawyers, to arrange a divorce are not doing it with very careful consideration. For this cohort, I am in complete agreement that this move will have been well thought through, not least as there is often so much money and property at stake. However, there will be many who think that they have far less to lose, and who may have given the issue far less thought.
Again, I am aware of Professor Janet Walker’s research, cited by the Nuffield Foundation’s Finding Fault? report, in defence of the argument that divorce is rarely initiated lightly. The report states that the research showed that the decision to divorce is not taken lightly or impetuously. Indeed, it is a typically protracted decision, based on months, if not years, of painful and difficult consideration. However, once that decision has been reached, the parties need to move forward without lengthy delays. Professor Walker’s study was a valuable analysis of provisions made in Part 2 of the Family Law Act, which was repealed. She followed thousands of people who took part in the pilots of the information meetings that would have become mandatory once the Act was brought into force. These, however, were volunteers, who had actively put themselves forward, not only to attend the meetings but to take part in research. So, despite my sincere respect for Professor Walker, I am not at all convinced that her subjects can be treated as representative of the overall divorcing population, including in terms of the level of consideration they had given to the decision to divorce.
On the second principle—that spouses
“are not put through legal requirements which do not serve their or the state’s interests and which can lead to ongoing conflict and poorer outcomes for children”—
this Bill falls very far short. I agree that the current system could be improved, but if the proposed reforms were enacted, respondents would be defenceless, in every sense of the word, and many of these are already the more vulnerable party, in financial and other ways. How are their interests served?
The assumption in debates during the passage of this Bill, as we have heard again today from the noble and learned Baroness, appears to have been that the abuser is often the respondent—but the abuser might also be the applicant. This law might penalise many more women than men, given that women are 12% worse off financially after divorce, while men are more than 30% better off.
How are the state’s interests served by this bad law, which cheapens the commitment of marriage? I have already cited research that shows that unilateral divorce leads to fewer marriages, fewer remarriages and more cohabitation, precisely because it makes marriage more like cohabitation. Does the state really want the greater instability that more cohabitation will bring, and higher numbers of children growing up without both parents? How is conflict significantly reduced when most of it is either prior to the divorce procedure or separate from it, at the stages when issues of money and children are being resolved?
To answer that, I will return to the single piece of research on which this Bill seems to have been based. The Nuffield Foundation’s Finding Fault? study insists that having to cite fault is a major engine of conflict, but ignores the horror and anger a respondent will feel when they are being unilaterally divorced with no reason or warning. Trinder et al say that such bombshell applications are rare, but this ignores Marriage Foundation research which found that fewer than 10% of married couples who parted had been quarrelling a lot the year before they did so. In its words:
“The remarkable lack of conflict or unhappiness immediately prior to divorce or separation suggests a great deal of family breakdown today may be a lot more salvageable than is commonly assumed.”
What about affairs, which can very quickly devastate a family, about which one party may be oblivious until divorce proceedings are initiated?
Why are the Government undertaking this seismic shift on the advice of one non-peer-reviewed study and the legal lobby? They seem to be assuming that the study is wholly impartial, but the University of Exeter blog accompanying its research, which was written by Professor Liz Trinder, decries,
“how a tiny and unrepresentative minority of evangelical/Christian right organisations are able to try to hijack the debate.”
Christians like me are not trying to hijack any debate; we are simply trying to have a debate. Such a discriminatory and pejorative statement hardly breeds confidence in the impartiality of the author of this influential report. We are enjoined before the start of every day’s proceedings to put aside partial affections. I urge the lawyers in this House to look more widely at this issue and not to think just about the immediate process their clients go through. Many divorce applicants will never see a lawyer. I also urge the Government to think again about the wider social ramifications of plans which do not have public support and on which they were not elected. I beg to move.
My Lords, I entirely understand the best intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, in putting forward this amendment, but my heart sinks to hear it. It is really an effort to rewrite the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, which we are trying very hard to get away from. I do not know whether the noble Lord understands—I hope he will forgive me for saying it like this—just what a farce the current divorce situation is. The majority of divorces are now completed on fault, and the fault has to be something that is important enough for the judge to sign off. Some judges sign off something which is very limited indeed, but if it is actually a fault of any significance, it upsets the respondent, and the respondent very often finds that he or she is being accused of things that have really not arisen during the marriage but are necessary for the current farcical situation to create a divorce. The exacerbation of the respondent inevitably has a marked effect on the children.
I have to say that Professor Liz Trinder, whom I know, is entirely independent. The report Finding Fault? is in line with lots of earlier research. In its comments on children, it is undoubtedly in line with the very strong evidence of endless consultant child and adolescent psychiatrists—and I know many of them. Over the years they have become increasingly concerned about the negative impact on children of the allegations of unreasonable behaviour that are to be found in the current legislation.
I am a patron of the Marriage Foundation, and the foundation is extremely keen that people should be reconciled. I have to say that I share that view; I must tell the House that I have been married for 61 years and I find it extremely sad when I meet members of my own family and other people I know who are divorcing. That for me is a tragedy. However, there is no shortage of people who wish to end their marriage. That is part of our English and Welsh law, and we have to go along with it.
Still, we must recognise that if this amendment were passed and only one party wanted to bring divorce proceedings, we would be back in the old situation, which is deplorable for children, and that would exacerbate the emotional trauma of the divorce process. I have to tell the House that it makes reconciliation very much less likely when allegations of behaviour are raised. Where they are not raised, it is a lot easier for people to talk to each other, but, if they are, it creates a very serious situation. I am very concerned that children should be protected from the behaviour of their parents. Children should be protected from the sort of allegations that could only seriously exacerbate the tragic situation for them when their parents separate.
My Lords, these amendments by the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, would add a number of conditions or barriers that would mean that a statement of irretrievable breakdown would not be accepted unless the couple had lived apart for a specific time or there was a citation of unreasonable behaviour. The conditions look suspiciously like the existing damaging conditions that the Bill is trying to get away from—a point echoed by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in much more eloquent terms than I can manage. It sounds harsh to say this, and I have every respect for the noble Lord, but it is hard to conclude anything other than that these are wrecking amendments. This party supports the Bill and so we will not be supporting them.
My Lords, I wish to speak against the amendment. There is a practicality that is overlooked here, and that is the question of living separate and apart. It is not feasible financially or possible, particularly with children, for one party to up sticks and leave the matrimonial home; often this means returning to their parents and different schooling. It is just not viable.
The real problem with divorce is that it is now socially acceptable; there is no stigma on divorce. I believe passionately in marriage. I am also a patron of the Marriage Foundation, which supports this measure. In an earlier speech, my noble friend referred to the elite readers of the Times running a campaign to support the Bill. It was actually spearheaded by Sir Paul Coleridge, who is the head of the Marriage Foundation, because he believes the Bill is pro-marriage. It stops the agony when one party needs to exit a marriage. The amendment would effectively wreck a Bill that most practising lawyers support.
I will add that the very rich have something in common with the very poor: they are the least affected by divorce. So the people at the bottom of the scale are going to be no more inhibited from getting a divorce than those at the top.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Farmer and other noble Lords for their contributions to the debate. I will speak to Amendment 2 and the other amendments in the group: 5A, 6, 6A, 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12. These amendments seek to retain the requirement on the court to inquire into any facts alleged by the applicant or indeed the respondent, and to be satisfied as to the facts alleged before holding that a marriage or civil partnership has broken down irretrievably. The exception would be that it would retain the approach under the Bill for joint applications.
With the greatest of respect, these amendments would drive a coach and horses through the Government’s measured and progressive Bill; the Government cannot accept them. They seek to maintain the status quo and deny any meaningful reform of the law—reform that is long overdue and which commands broad support in both Houses and beyond. Removing the use of blame in the legal process of divorce, dissolution and separation is a key objective of the Government. We know from the evidence that incentivising a spouse to make allegations about the other spouse at the outset of the legal process can simply worsen conflict. That conflict can then play out not only during the legal process of divorce but in any linked proceedings about financial matters or children.
In Committee, my noble friend said that much weight has been put on the evidence from research by the University of Exeter, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. He referred to the Finding Fault? study as
“a piece of grey literature … that … has not been peer reviewed.”—[Official Report, 3/3/2020; col. 553.]
and said that the reliance of the Government and, indeed, noble Lords, on this research was in his view surprising. He further noted that it was based on one study involving 81 interviews and an analysis of 300 divorces.
I am bound to say that the Government and many others find the evidence from this important research compelling. The Finding Fault? project, led by Professor Trinder, was peer-reviewed at application stage and scrutinised throughout by an expert advisory group, and the final report was reviewed by a senior academic and two members of the Nuffield research team. It has since been widely cited in academic family law textbooks. Indeed, I note that it has been referred to with approval by those with considerable experience in this area of the law, including my noble friend Lady Shackleton and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss.
I agree that that research has been influential. Its messages—that the current law increases conflict, encourages dishonesty and undermines the aims of the family justice system—are consistent with a body of evidence going back about 40 years, not least the Law Commission report of 1990, which led to the enactment, although not the implementation, of the Family Law Act 1996. The Finding Fault? study shows that the problems with fault-based divorce persist today. We cannot ignore that message.
Although the survey component of the study did find evidence of public support for retaining fault as part of the divorce law, this was not universal and indeed was inconsistent with other beliefs expressed by respondents—for example, that it is unfair to blame just one spouse for a marriage breakdown. The survey was only one component of the research, which also included interviews with people going through divorce, focus groups with lawyers, observation of the court scrutiny process, analysis of divorce court files and comparative analysis in other countries.
I appreciate and acknowledge the conviction of my noble friend and those who support his views that this Bill is bad for marriage, families and society, but I profoundly disagree. These reforms are measured, progressive and necessary. They are formulated on evidence that the current law works to fuel conflict, which is damaging for couples, parents and children. The law does not do what people think it does. It does not keep a party to a marriage in a relationship against their will. Marriage is a consensual union between two people. Unilateral divorce has been available under the current law for over 40 years. This Bill seeks to remove elements of the current law that can drive conflict. It does not and cannot make the painful decision to divorce any easier.
In light of this, I simply cannot agree with the terms of the amendment. We have, of course, listened to the concerns expressed about some provisions in the Bill. At this early stage, I would note this: I have committed the Government to work with the Family Procedure Rule Committee to address the issue of timely service on the respondent of the notice of proceedings by the applicant party. I have also tabled amendments to the Bill to make the delegated powers in Clauses 1 and 4, to amend the 20-week and six-week minimum periods under the Bill, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, which will provide greater scrutiny of the measures. Finally, I have given a commitment that the Government will use the opportunity of amending court processes, including the online divorce service, to improve information about, and signposting to, important services such as marriage counselling and mediation. With those commitments in mind, I urge noble Lords to support the Bill in its present form and invite my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who contributed to the debate on my amendments. They backed up my argument that opinions do not change much in this House when you put forward a case. I thank the Minister for the commitments he just made.
It was said that these amendments go back to the dark ages. In a way, what I was saying when I spoke to them was that they line up very well with what is going on in Scotland, which seems to work very well. In Scotland, there are reduced time periods of one year and two years instead of two years and five years. I am not suggesting that we go back to 1973. The Minister also defended the Finding Fault? review from my criticisms. The process of peer review should be ruthlessly rigorous. It should involve at least two academics reading an anonymised script and aim to be as objective as possible. Other Nuffield Foundation research has been turned into peer-reviewed journal articles. I can give my noble friend at least one example: “Reforming family law—the case of cohabitation: ‘things may not work out as you expect’”, by Jo Miles, Fran Wasoff and Enid Mordaunt.
Ms Miles is on record as saying:
“Divorce law has not got anything to contribute; it is changes in society”
which have led to increased divorce. She is entitled to her opinion, but that is a contested view. The Nuffield Foundation did not ask someone with a different view who could have provided a profound challenge to its assumptions, methodology et cetera, but someone who was of the view that this legal change would not have an adverse effect on society. Unsurprisingly, the research assumes that divorce rates will be unaffected by the law. I just mention that in reply to the Minister.
In any event, I must join my noble friend Lord McColl in waiting to hear what the elected Members of the other place make of this. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 2 withdrawn.
3: Clause 1, page 2, line 9, at end insert—
“(5A) For the purposes of subsection (5), “the start of proceedings” means—(a) in the case of an application that is to proceed as an application by both parties to the marriage, the date on which the application is lodged at the court under subsection (1), or(b) in the case of an application that is to proceed as an application by one party to the marriage only, the date when notice that the application for a divorce order has been lodged at the court has been served on the other party to the marriage.(5B) The court may abridge the 20 week period under subsection (5) if, on application, there is evidence that the respondent has engaged in deliberate evasion of service or other steps to delay materially the service of the application under subsection (1).(5C) The extent of the abridgement is at the discretion of the court and the court must take into account the date when the proceedings would have started had there been no such evasion or other material attempts to delay service by the respondent.”
My Lords, Amendment 3 is tabled in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Curry, who is following government advice by staying at home today.
The amendments in this group would tie the start of proceedings to service in the case of a sole petition divorce. Amendment 3 relates to marriages and Amendment 9A to civil partnerships. My noble friend Lord Farmer tabled a similar amendment in Committee. I am returning to the issue today because I believe the compromise offered by the Government does not go far enough. Proposed new Section 1(5) stipulates that 20 weeks must elapse between application and conditional order. This period gives couples a chance to reflect on the serious matter of divorce, plan for the future and consider whether their marriage can be saved.
As a nice aside, I must express my surprise at hearing several noble Lords imply in Committee that once the divorce process has started, there is no point attempting to save the marriage. I also gently remind the Minister that the government press release of 7 January said that the 20-week period is to
“provide a meaningful period of reflection and the chance to turn back”.
For the 20-week period to work, it is vital that both parties are aware that divorce proceedings have been initiated, but the wording of proposed new Section 1(5) leaves room for the respondent to be deliberately kept in the dark by the applicant. It ties the beginning of the 20-week notice period to “the start of proceedings”—that is, when notice is given to the court.
It is all too easy for a sole petitioner to avoid his or her obligation to give notice to the respondent by, for example, giving an out-of-date address or deliberately choosing a moment when the respondent is unreachable, maybe abroad. The question of whether the respondent is aware of the application becomes live only when the applicant asks the court to make the conditional order at the end of the 20 weeks. This means the respondent could be left unaware that the notice period has started, and the clock is running. They may not find out that the 20-week period has almost expired. That would surely defeat the entire purpose of the notice period: to encourage reflection. It could leave the respondent at a huge disadvantage.
It is more than possible that the applicant could start proceedings then leave the country with the children, in effect committing international parental child abduction. As noble Lords know, this subject is close to my heart. If the applicant flees to Germany, for example, it is possible to change the children’s place of residence in a matter of weeks, taking them out of the UK jurisdiction and into a foreign jurisdiction. Even if this does not happen, possession is nine-tenths of the law—as noble Lords are surely aware. Only 15% of abducted children are returned to their country of habitual residence under the terms of the Hague convention 1980. I raise this scenario because the Bill gives an unscrupulous applicant a great deal of power over the respondent. To summarise: on the eve of a conditional order, a respondent could find himself or herself confronted with a double fait accompli: divorce and the loss of the children.
The point was underlined last year by family law specialist David Hodson, in an article for a legal journal. He wrote:
“The intention of Parliament of divorce by notice over 26 weeks actually applies only to the applicant for the divorce. The recipient respondent will have less, perhaps much less and possibly even only a few weeks and yet have no opportunity to object. Any idea that there would be reflection and consideration—”
I wonder whether the noble Baroness would allow me to make the point that in Amendment 3, proposed new subsection (5B) talks about
“evidence that the respondent has engaged in deliberate evasion of service or other steps to delay materially the service of the application”.
Nothing in this amendment deals with the applicant misbehaving.
Maybe it is a failing in the amendment. It could be detrimental to both sides, but I am coming on to the other side as well. Mr Hodson described the current wording of the Bill as
“discriminatory, arbitrary and unfair. A process in law which means some parties to proceedings will have a dramatically different notice period than other respondents.”
The simple solution to the problem is to make the start of proceedings in the case of single applicants for divorce the date on which the application is served on the other party, rather than the date it is made by the petitioner. This was recommended in the Law Society briefing paper, which states:
“It is proper that a respondent to a divorce is given the full 26-week period of notice … If the notice period runs from the start of proceedings rather than the date of service, the respondent may receive the notice long after the start of proceedings, whether due to court delays, interference from the petitioner in delaying receipt by the respondent, the simple length of time of delivery if abroad, or other administrative reasons …We would recommend the Bill is amended to ensure that the notice period in applications by one party to a marriage only, would start from when the notice was received by the other party to the marriage. We believe it is vital that both parties each have a minimum of 26 weeks for the divorce to proceed under.”
In Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, said that this would hand
“too much power to a respondent party who wishes to frustrate the divorce proceedings by avoiding or disputing service or delaying the entire process.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 582.]
He suggested that new rules and definitions of service should be explored by the Family Procedure Rule Committee, but there are two concerns about this approach. First, the principle is so important, and the potential for injustice so profound, that we cannot risk the Bill coming into force without this problem being solved first. To delegate this to the Family Procedure Rule Committee is to neglect the responsibility of this House to scrutinise and improve legislation. Secondly, on the point of a respondent who wishes to avoid or frustrate the divorce process, we accept the concerns of noble Lords. That is why these amendments give the court power to abridge and shorten the 20-week period if it arises that a respondent is attempting to frustrate the process.
I hope that, despite my bad reading, this demonstrates that concern about unco-operative respondents can be addressed, but we must also address the issue of unco-operative applicants. I beg to move.
My Lords, before I speak to Amendments 3 and 9A, I should tell your Lordships—in the unusual circumstances—that I certainly have a cough. I have had it since before Christmas; I have been to see my general practitioner, who says that I have a virus, but it is not “the virus”. I hope that noble Lords can be assured that I am not going to spread the coronavirus. I saw my GP and a consultant last week and have been checked out. I am sorry about my cough, but I cannot get rid of it.
What the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has spoken about happens already, either by petitioners who give a false address or by respondents who make it impossible for the petition to continue. This goes on; I have heard from judges that they know it is going on. Sometimes divorces are completed without the respondent knowing. In other cases, there are divorces that cannot conclude because the respondent will not support it and just refuses to answer any questions or do anything that is relevant to the outcome of a divorce. I hope this is something that the Government will discuss with the President of the Family Division and the Family Procedure Rule Committee, because it is a serious matter. However, I do not think that it will be managed by this amendment.
I interrupted the noble Baroness, because I wanted her to realise that she has to deal with what is actually in the amendment: 26 weeks is not referred to in the amendment, and it deals only with respondents and not applicants. For all those reasons, I suggest to noble Lords that this amendment is flawed and cannot be supported.
Even if it is the case that the wording of the amendment is not quite right, would the noble and learned Baroness in principle support this amendment? It seems to deal precisely with the situation which she outlined so eloquently, where both sides sometimes try to evade service. Would it not be important to have on the statute book a way of dealing with this issue?
I understand what the noble and right reverend Lord says. The trouble is that I do not think having it in primary legislation will make it any easier for this issue to be resolved. This seems a matter for the Family Division to get on with, to see what it can do to try to deal with this. The Family Procedure Rules have to be obeyed; when I was a family judge, they were as important to me as primary legislation. I understand the point, but I do not think that it will make people behave any better if this is in primary legislation rather than in the rules.
To answer the question on the problem about service, this is regularly done when somebody is trying to evade service. You can go to the court and ask for an order for deemed service. There does not seem to be any problem in that; you just have to produce evidence that you have made your best endeavours to serve somebody, and if the court is satisfied that that has happened, service is deemed and the divorce can proceed.
My Lords, I sympathise very strongly with this amendment, which as we have discussed deals with the vexed question of service. There is a balance to be struck where there is one applicant for divorce—in other words, it is not a joint application—between ensuring that the respondent has received adequate notification and that they are not able to frustrate the process by claiming not to have received notice. I am sure the House is very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, for her explanation of how that can be overcome. In meetings with the Minister, and in this Chamber, he has given assurances that the Family Division would make rules that strike the balance between sufficient notification and attempts to frustrate the process.
We accept the Government’s position that the arrangements for service are best left to the Family Procedure Rule Committee. We also accept that, increasingly, applications will be made online, in which case service is usually effected by the court. But we must also agree with the Government that provisions must be made for paper applications as well as online applications.
It is important that the respondent must be made aware of the proceedings as early as possible. The rules need to provide that a respondent cannot frustrate proceedings by trying to evade service, or by failing to acknowledge service. I would greatly appreciate further clarification from the Minister, and further assurances that this amendment will not be necessary.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, for moving the amendment on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Curry, and other noble Lords for their contributions. We understand the concerns that part of the intention behind the Bill’s new minimum 20-week period between the start of proceedings and when the court can be asked to make the conditional order could be undermined if notice of the proceedings on the respondent party is substantially delayed. I provided assurances in Committee that a conditional order will not be made without satisfactory evidence of service. Of course the Bill does not provide for divorce or dissolution by 26 weeks’ notice; confirmation is required at both conditional and final order stages that the marriage or civil partnership should be brought to a legal end.
However, in this matter we have to be led by the evidence. Professor Trinder’s study of 300 undefended divorce case files found that no acknowledgement of service was returned by the respondent in 41 of the sample cases, which is about 13.7% of the total. If you were to extrapolate that nationally, that would amount to about 14,000 cases annually. Very few cases appeared to result from difficulty in locating the respondent; instead, the majority of the 41 non-returns appeared to reflect a decision by the respondent not to co-operate with the process, either because they were opposed to the divorce in principle or the reason given for it or simply because they wanted to make the process more difficult for the applicant. Resolution, the leading body in England and Wales representing over 6,000 family justice professionals, has also identified frustration of the proceedings by the respondent as the greater mischief.
I accept that in tabling his amendment the noble Lord, Lord Curry, was offering a constructive suggestion but that he recognises that a respondent may be deliberately evasive. However, the material effect of his amendment would apply to applications made by one spouse only when the 20-week period had started and the respondent had been served.
There is a difficulty here. The only fail-safe way of knowing that the respondent has been served is when the respondent returns to the court with the form acknowledging service, if indeed they return at all. In his amendment, the noble Lord sought to address this issue by giving the court the power to abridge the 20-week period between the start of proceedings and when it may make the conditional order if there is evidence that the respondent has sought to evade or delay service. The difficulty, as with the existing procedures for the court to grant deemed service or dispense with service in England and Wales, is the evidence that the court will require to be shown that the respondent should be aware of the application when in fact he refuses to return the acknowledgement of service, and therefore it makes the process of dispensation difficult. Indeed, such a process can be lengthy and requires separate applications to the court, which in turn can make it a complex process for applicants to navigate.
The amendment would place a further requirement on the applicant to apply to abridge the time of the 20-week period in such cases by providing evidence that the respondent has deliberately sought to evade service. Inviting an applicant to prove a negative is always going to be rather challenging, particularly in this sort of process. We have listened carefully to what has been said about this matter, both in debate and in the meetings that I have had with a number of your Lordships.
We consider that the right way to deal with this concern is to commit, as I committed at the previous stage, to work with the Family Procedure Rule Committee, which already has the relevant statutory powers to address the issue of service, and which has a statutory duty to consider whether to consult on rule changes. We are therefore inviting the Family Procedure Rule Committee to consider the matter when reviewing the rules required to implement the Bill, including a rule requiring service of the application within a specific period following the issuing of proceedings. I believe that this approach has drawn support from all sides of House, and I therefore invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Everyone here recognises that there is a problem, and the most experienced lawyers among us have emphasised that. My question is simply: if we have been aware of this problem for so long, and the Family Procedure Rule Committee or whatever other body was appropriate did not deal with it at that time, what makes the Minister think it is going to deal with it better in future? Would it be better to have something very clear actually on the statute book, such as some government alteration of the amendment put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer?
No, my Lords, it would not be appropriate to put this in primary legislation. To assuage such concerns as there may be, I can say that the President of the Family Law Division has already had this matter raised with him and has expressed a view. We have committed to make sure that the matter is brought before the Family Procedure Rule Committee, which is the appropriate body to address this point.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for responding to these amendments. Of course, I am very disappointed. As he made clear in Committee, the Family Procedure Rule Committee can be invited only to consider the matter. It might decide not to act, or the matter may get lost in the myriad other changes following this Bill. I recognise that there is little appetite for a vote, so I beg leave to withdraw my amendment but very much hope that our colleagues in the other place will take a view on this before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
4: Clause 1, page 2, line 20, leave out from “subsection (6)” to “House” in line 21 and insert “may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 4, I shall speak also to Amendment 10 in my name. Essentially, Clause 1 provides for a minimum period of 20 weeks between the start of proceedings and when the court can be asked to make a conditional order of divorce. It further provides a delegated power to enable the Government, by statutory instrument, to shorten or lengthen this period, as well as the existing minimum period of six weeks, which will apply between the conditional order and the final order of divorce. Clause 4 similarly makes provision for the Lord Chancellor to change the prescribed periods in respect of civil partnership dissolution.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee questioned the purpose of these Henry VIII powers and recommended their omission from the Bill, or alternatively that they be made subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. At an earlier stage, the noble Baronesses, Lady Meacher and Lady Chakrabarti, spoke of their concern about the lack of clarity surrounding the circumstances in which the Government would seek to use these delegated powers. We have listened to those concerns; it is in the light of this that we move an amendment that will make these powers subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. I hope this reassures noble Lords that there will be proper scrutiny of these powers in the event that they are ever sought to be used. I beg to move.
My Lords, as the Minister has just outlined, these amendments will use the Lord Chancellor’s Henry VIII powers to change the period of time between the commencement of proceedings and the conditional order, as well as between the conditional order and the final order, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. We are very pleased on this side of the House that the Government have listened to the debates and discussions earlier and moved forward, so we welcome these government amendments. They have been laid in response to the Committee amendments previously tabled by my colleague and noble friend Lady Chakrabarti, who unfortunately cannot be with us for the debate today. We warmly support the Bill. I have not spoken on previous amendments as the contributions—especially those from the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton—have been eloquent and insightful, not to mention evidence-based, which is always nice to hear in your Lordships’ House.
I take this opportunity to remind your Lordships’ House again of the consequences of the decade-long underfunding of our justice system and how these cuts have affected family law in many ways, especially since legal aid was removed from divorce cases. This was, I believe, a terrible mistake. We are in many cases failing to protect abandoned people and children. The lack of access to lawyers results in inherently inadequate allocation of resources in the event of separation and divorce. As my noble friend Lady Chakrabarti recently highlighted, it seems perverse that, if the state seeks to take your children away, you have access to a lawyer but, if your ex-partner is depriving you of that contact, you do not have that support.
We can try to craft the most perfect divorce legislation but people must have access to early and consistent advice and representation. We urge the Minister to reflect further on the availability of legal aid.
I want to pick up on one comment made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, on an earlier amendment. She said that if amendments were passed to this excellent Bill that were not government amendments, it could hinder its progress. I hope that noble Lords will heed those words. On a personal note, the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, commented that the decision to divorce should be a considered one. Like many noble Lords here present, I am fortunate: I have been happily married for the last 25 years. But among the individuals who I have come across and had conversations with about divorce, I know that none of them took the decision to divorce in an unconsidered way. So, happily, we support the amendment.
Amendment 4 agreed.
5: After Clause 1, insert the following new Clause—
“Information to be provided
The Lord Chancellor must ensure that individuals applying for a divorce order who have children under the age of 18 are provided with a concise statement of the main findings from the relevant social science disciplines about the impact of divorce on different aspects of a child’s wellbeing.”
My Lords, in Committee we had a useful debate on the impact of the Bill on children. The amendment I moved on that occasion required that the best interests of children should be considered in the divorce process. In his response, the Minister said, among other things:
“I understand why some may regard it as important for the court to consider the impacts on children of the decision to divorce, but that ought not to be a matter for the divorce process. The decision to marry or divorce is an autonomous one. It is not for the law to stand in the way of one or both parties who no longer wish to be in a marriage. The legal process of divorce should focus only on ending the legal relationship between the adult parties. Issues that may arise from the divorce, such as disputed arrangements for children, can and are dealt with now under separate statutory provision.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 549.]
Taken as a whole, the Minister’s response made two main points. First, he claimed that while the decision to marry involved two people, the decision to divorce need involve only one person and is as such an “autonomous decision” that engages neither the spouse nor the children. This was not to say that the best interests of children were irrelevant but, rather, that they are engaged outside the legal process of divorce and protected through provisions such as those in the Children Acts. Secondly, he expressed the concern that the requirement to take into consideration the best interests of children could be used to prevent the divorce taking place if the divorce were deemed to be not in their best interests.
While it is not my intention to table any amendment that would prevent a couple who want to divorce from divorcing, I am deeply concerned about doing anything that authenticates an ethic of autonomous decision-making in family life. When two people marry and bring children into the world, they change the world through those children, who are very properly dependent on them throughout childhood. They use their autonomous choice to create a family unit of dependents and interdependence, in which anyone who is committed to the notion of responsibility must acknowledge that they say goodbye to autonomous decision-making, in the sense of decision-making based entirely on self, and engaging with the consequences for others only after the fact.
The thrust of government policy in seeking to fix “broken Britain” has been all along about helping fathers and mothers recognise that they must live up to their responsibilities, not escape them by falling into the ethic of autonomous decision-making. The hyper-individualism of the ethic of autonomous decision-making is the root cause of the broken Britain phenomenon, which the Conservative Party in opposition pledged itself to repair. In consequence, it makes no sense that, once in power, the Conservatives should instead give a shot in the arm to the hyper-individualism that they previously committed to curtail. In this context, rather than encouraging ethical autonomous decision-making, it is vital that divorce legislation in 2020, while not blocking the break-up of the family unit, should encourage adults with dependants to make decisions that are fully cognisant of the implications of those decisions on others, including their children.
This is absolutely relevant to the divorce process because it is one of decision-making. That is reflected in the three stages of the process as set out in the Government’s consultation paper, Reducing Family Conflict: the petition, the decree nisi and the decree absolute. The sense of the decision-making process negotiated through the first two stages is helpfully elucidated on page 32 of Reducing Family Conflict:
“Although it is the making of the petition that puts the marriage on notice, so to speak, it is only at the stage of the decree nisi that the marriage has, at least provisionally, been found by the court to have broken down irretrievably.”
The dictionary definition of putting in notice is,
“a formal announcement, notification, or warning, especially an announcement of one’s intention to withdraw from an agreement.”
The first part of the divorce process is therefore not set out in terms that suggest that the divorce is necessarily going to happen. We are looking at an indication of intention.
The provisional nature of that initial putting on notice period is further underlined by the designation of the 20-week period between initiating the petition and the application of the conditional order as the reflection period. It is during this reflection period that the Government have said on numerous occasions that they hope it might be possible to save a marriage. For example, in their response to the consultation process, the Government state on page 17:
“The law can, and should, have a role in providing couples with an opportunity to reflect on their momentous decision and pull back from the brink if they decide that reconciliation is achievable.”
In other words, at this stage we are not dealing with a process where decision-making is over.
In the context of the decision-making process facilitated within the legal process of divorce, it is very important that couples with children think about the impact that the divorce is likely, given the current social science research, to have on their children. In order to help them think this through, it is vital that they are empowered to make informed decisions through the provision by the Lord Chancellor of a
“concise, accessible statement of the main findings from the relevant social science discipline about the impact of divorce on different aspects of a child’s well-being.”
This is a modest but important amendment. It does not block divorce but simply seeks to empower a couple to make decisions about divorce that are informed by an awareness of the likely impact on their children.
I suggest that we cannot expend energy on seeking to block such a provision unless we want to risk being seen to prioritise the convenience of adults over the best interests of children in a way that I—and, I feel sure, many others—would find disturbing. I very much hope that the Government will accept this amendment. I beg to move.
My Lords, I apologise for not having participated in this debate previously, but I trust it is in order to make a few remarks in relation to this amendment.
In 2002, when I was recently elected to the Commons, for whatever reason the Whips did not put me on a Select Committee—that is another story—so I created my own select committee in my constituency. I spent the best part of a year looking at heroin abuse in micro detail. The relevance and significance to this debate is in one of the extraordinary findings I made. There were around 600 heroin addicts living in the constituency. It was a fairly stable population and it was easy for me to gain access to them. I personally met, interviewed or researched—you could use all those terms accurately—around 300 of them, half the cohort, looking at what should be done to deal with their addiction but also at how they came to be addicted.
I came across the most extraordinary correlation. Of those 300, I found none—not a single one—who had not had major childhood trauma sometime in their teenage years. For some, it was reasonably well documented; it would be sexual or violent abuse in or outside the family that led them to heroin as their drug of choice. For others, though, it was a parental death or a messy separation. That correlation was absolutely uniform across the entire cohort; it varied between individuals, of course.
The conclusion I drew was that inability to cope with that major trauma led people into more dysfunctional behaviour and particularly into the choice of heroin as a comforting drug—the so-called cotton wool drug—which was the area I was building a particular expertise in. That has concentrated my mind and work for the nearly 20 years since, dealing with many such cases and the impact of separation on children.
I do not draw the same conclusions as the noble Baroness on how the law should be framed, because what I found in dealing with individuals in this situation was that the institution of marriage itself was not the problem or the issue; it was the circumstances in which they lived. Any kind of disputed, messy separation—whether a divorce or a less conventional way of living; I call it a quasi-separation—within an established family, or perhaps an established legal marriage that was itself dysfunctional and traumatic, could create the problem. In how we frame the law, the conclusion I drew at the time and put to your Lordships is therefore that a flexibility of approach that puts the children first is critical.
However, a structured approach in the law that overstructured the solution for the child would be counterproductive. The intent behind the noble Baroness’s amendment and the causation that she is putting forward are entirely endorsed, but I fear that the remedy is too constrictive in terms of the outcome for children and for how children will know that they are put first.
My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 13. It seeks simply to ensure that important information is available for divorcing couples so that they have the chance to think again about whether divorce is the best, or the only, way forward.
In Committee, I tabled an amendment that made it a duty to inform the couple of that information. The Minister argued then that it was too far down the road at that point, as the couple would have already started the process of obtaining a divorce. However, he thought that it would be possible for the necessary information to be made available on an official website, and this amendment simply seeks to ensure that that will indeed be the case. It therefore reads:
“It is the duty of a Minister of the Crown to ensure that those applying for a divorce order using the website of Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service have access to information about services related to relationship support, mediation, domestic abuse and related matters.”
Of course, that does not take into account those who apply for an order on paper, but it assumes that they will probably look at the court’s website at some point, and that is probably the best that can be done at this stage. Therefore, I very much hope that the Government will be able to accept this very simple amendment.
My Lords, much of what I might wish to say about Amendments 5 and 13 has already been mentioned, so I will not repeat it. However, from these Benches I would like to express my warm support for the main thrust of both amendments and briefly reiterate three points.
First, in both amendments, those applying for a divorce are not compelled to do anything, but they are presented with information that might make a difference not only to what they do but to the way in which they do it.
Secondly, with regard to Amendment 5, almost everyone is agreed that the divorce of a child’s parents is one of the so-called ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences—we have just heard about one of those—that can significantly affect the subsequent flourishing of the child. It seems to make every sense to bring that to the attention of the parents, as well as the fact that children apparently often tend to do better even with fractious parents than they do after a divorce, although I fully acknowledge that cases of domestic abuse are a different matter.
Thirdly, as for being given access to information about mediation and marriage counselling, as we have been reminded, it might seem a little late in the day for that, and I noted the earlier comments of other noble Lords. However, as I understand them, the statistics suggest that as many as 2,500 relationships are currently rescued each year as a direct result of this sort of intervention. That is obviously important not only for the couples but for any children involved. Several noble Lords have already emphasised that point.
Both these amendments seem to be simply a matter of common sense and care for everyone who is caught up in the trauma of a divorce. They would enhance, rather than destroy, the Bill, and I very much hope that the Minister will regard them with the favour that they clearly deserve.
My Lords, the social science evidence is very clear that divorce has a negative—sometimes profoundly negative—impact on child development. Of course, there are occasions when divorce is absolutely in the best interests of children: when they need to be liberated from an abusive environment. In developing public policy, however, we must be careful that situations where divorce is the best outcome do not cause us to lose sight of the fact that, in most cases, it is best for children to remain living in an intact family home.
Under the current law, if someone is unfaithful to their spouse, they know that they will be at risk of receiving divorce papers. There is a sense in which the law is there to protect the faithful spouse from being abused by an unfaithful spouse. The new framework, however, seems to turn things on its head. A feckless husband and father, rather than being challenged by the law in his selfishness, is actually empowered by it, and in a way that enables him to demonstrate a cruel lack of regard for his spouse and children. He can have an affair and use the law to help him fulfil his objective of liberating himself from the family unit that constrains him, in order to pursue others. The law allows him to issue a statement of irretrievable breakdown with the option of being out of the marriage in six months.
What does this Bill do for the faithful spouse, the respondent, and, more importantly, their children? It means that people who have committed no fault, but who are being divorced, will lose the warning that they currently benefit from through the requirement for prior separation in the absence of fault. They will instead receive, out of the blue, a statement of irretrievable breakdown, a breakdown that is in no sense their fault, and find that marriage will end in six months, or significantly less if the petitioner sabotages the 20-week reflection period by not telling her that a petition has been lodged until part way through or at the end of the period.
The lack of actual regard for the respondent and children in the proposed law is concerning. I know that in 2011, when David Cameron, as Prime Minister, called for feckless runaway fathers to be shamed, he was not necessarily saying that couples should not divorce. His point was that fathers should take their responsibilities seriously. As well as challenging fathers not thoughtlessly and selfishly to walk out of marriages, he was challenging fathers not to turn their backs on their responsibilities after divorce. Notwithstanding that, however, it is very difficult to square the way that this legislation empowers a feckless father to walk out of his marriage on the basis that his decision is an autonomous one, without regard for the best interests of the children until after the decision to divorce has been made. In this context, at the very least we must think more about asking parents to process the divorce decision in the context of an awareness of what the social science evidence says about the best interests of their children.
In this regard, I set before your Lordships’ House two considerations. In the first instance, a divorce decision is not an autonomous decision, because it impacts both the spouse and the children. We should be encouraging not an autonomous decision but a responsible decision, one that has regard for the impact on others, especially the children.
In the second instance, the decision to divorce is located, to some significant degree, in the legal process of divorce, and is not a foregone conclusion from the outset. As the Government’s consultation, Reducing Family Conflict, makes plain on page 31, initiating the petition amounts to something that
“puts the marriage on notice”.
The application for the conditional order for the divorce is not actually made until after the 20-week period. This is called a reflection period, for the very good reason that it is a time for reflection, to aid the decision-making process in the context of which The Family Impact Test says:
“The legal process for divorce should seek to reduce acrimony and conflict, thereby helping couples and parents to look to the future rather than providing a mechanism that facilitates and encourages the attribution of blame for past events. We want to create conditions for couples and parents to reconcile if they can–and to move on as constructively as possible in the event that this is not possible.”
In other words, the Government are saying that the decision-making process is still taking place in the legal process of divorce during the reflection period. In this context, it seems absolutely right that, rather than encouraging people to make autonomous decisions about divorce in the legal process of divorce, we should be encouraging them to make responsible decisions about divorce—decisions that do not think just about themselves but about their children.
I believe that this amendment is eminently sensible. It does not block couples seeking divorce; it entitles couples to receive information. Quite what couples decide to do with the information is up to them. Perhaps it will make them resolve to work harder at their marriage and step back from divorce. Perhaps it will not change their decision at all, but it will impact the way in which they approach it and make them more alive to the need to provide special support for their children going forward.
The state, having played a role in recognising the marriage commitment through the law and conscious of the significant public policy benefits of marriage, has a responsibility, particularly to the children of the marriage, to make sure that it cannot be exited without reflection on the implications of doing so in the best interests of the children. I am therefore pleased to support Amendment 5.
My Lords, I start by reassuring the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, that if the President of the Family Division has said he will do something, he will do it.
Turning to these two amendments, I have the greatest possible sympathy with the proposals in each of them, but I do not think it appropriate that either should be in primary legislation. I would like to see, side by side with the application online, a requirement for the applicant to read advice about dealing with the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries; and equally, if not more important, to read something about what the children say about divorce’s impact on them. About 20 years ago, Michigan had the most wonderful video of children ranging from about six to 18. They talked about the impact of divorce on them, such as: guilt—wondering whether it was their fault; anger at one parent or sometimes both; frustration because they did not know what was going on; and so on. Children need to be informed about what is happening; they have a right to know. They are people, not just packages.
It is extremely important that this sort of information, together with the information the noble Baroness and the right reverend Prelate have set out today, be provided, along with asking whether the parents realise that the children generally love both of them—it is very rare that they do not—and that the impact will include their feeling that they are responsible for what has happened, for example. I would like an undertaking from the Minister that this information, which has to be easily available, will be provided. A link is not good enough, because people do not have to look at it. It should be side by side with the application and should be provided to any applicant with children; however, it is not an appropriate provision for primary legislation.
My Lords, I fully support what the noble and learned Baroness says. Before I speak in support of the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, I shall make one thing clear: I have never said that I would be in favour of forcing people to stay together if they have decided that the best way forward is to separate and divorce. On the contrary, as I said in my previous speech, I fully support the new clause which allows for divorce by mutual decision through a joint application. The problem lies elsewhere: in what are, for the moment, called “contested cases”.
It is clear from earlier debates that many noble Lords, mostly those from the legal profession, approve of this Bill, which simplifies divorce proceedings, but is this a case of the law sometimes being divorced from real life? Life is messy. The law should allow for that. It cannot be based on a one-size-fits-all relationship. For a start, the Bill’s premise that once one party wants a divorce, the marriage must be considered to have broken down, is false. Relationships come in all shapes, sizes and emotions. Impulsive decisions to divorce are replete with second, third and fourth thoughts—a process in which the respondent should play a full part. That can lead to greater mutual aggravation, of course, but it can also lead to reconciliation, most importantly to the benefit of a child.
Although some noble Lords hotly contest this, the plain truth is that this Bill provides for unilateral divorce, minimising from the start the chances of reconciliation, when it should do the opposite. It is unfair to the respondent, placing virtually all the cards in the hand of the applicant. That cannot be morally acceptable. It offends natural law.
The claim is made that the new law will help women to get out of abusive relationships. I do not deny that there will be such cases, but on the basis of my experience observing scores of relationships during my 19 years as the CEO of a charity, I argue that the opposite is more likely when one spouse is an abuser. The normal reaction of an abusive spouse to what he considers an attack is to hit back and hurt to the greatest degree possible. Where there are children, they become the abuser’s weapon of choice. Making amendments here and there is all well and good, but my objection in principle to this Bill remains the same: by failing to take into account the welfare of the children, it makes them more vulnerable.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, mentioned that it is not for the law to stand in the way of one or both parties who no longer wish to be married—I agree—but he also said that there is no call to contaminate the divorce process with the interests of the children. Surely the law should protect children. In the real world, in which I worked for nearly two decades, I looked not at parents during the divorce but at what happens in the years afterwards to their children. The price that children pay is horrendous, yet whenever I make this pretty obvious point, I am told that I should not worry because this rule deals only with divorce, and children will be protected by the Children and Families Act 2014. Perhaps we should look at that Act before putting forward this Bill. Is it not important to put the two together? As one major critic of this Bill eloquently commented:
“It would be a major opportunity lost if, in the pursuit of ending the blame game, even greater harm is created.”
I agree with the amendment, which would better inform parents of what will happen to their children when they divorce. That is one thing, but I am sorry to say that the law should provide much greater protection for children than this Bill will. I support the amendment.
My Lords, we have gone round the houses a bit but the amendments in this group are about information to applicants. Amendment 5 would require the Lord Chancellor to ensure that information was provided to divorcing couples with children under 18 about the effects of divorce on children. I recall that we had a discussion in Committee about the impact of divorce on children, and I agree strongly that they are often victims in this. However, I think that most parents will be only too well aware of the effect of divorce on their children, and they do not split up a home lightly.
As in so many situations, the impact on the children will depend on how the situation is handled. Taking the sting out of divorce by removing any requirement for blame and taking out child arrangements and financial arrangements from the divorce itself will, I hope, help the inevitable split have a calmer, less traumatic effect on children. In the past, staying together for the sake of the children often produced more, not less, unhappiness and trauma for children and adults. A family today can look very different from the traditional model that prevailed years ago. To me, as long as there is security and love, that is the main thing.
Amendment 13 would require applicants to be provided with information about relationship support, mediation, domestic abuse and related matters. Again, we discussed this in Committee, and I tend to agree with one or two other noble Lords who said that by the time an application has been made, it is too late.
My amendment says that this information should be on the website of the Courts & Tribunals Service, so that would not be too late; it would be when they were still exploring the possibility, not putting in an application. It would be there just as basic information. Surely there cannot be any objection to people finding out a few facts.
I am very grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord, and I totally agree. I am just going on to talk about the information that we should be making available at all stages.
These services should be freely available to any couple experiencing difficulties in their relationship. Let us face it, the current situation with regard to Covid-19 can hardly be conducive to calm, happy families if they are all stuck in the same house together for weeks on end. I strongly agree that the Government should be funding the kinds of services mentioned in the amendment, particularly in the current circumstances, and several steps upstream before a decision is made to file. However, I also agree with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, that this very valuable information does not need to be in primary legislation. I look forward to hearing details from the Minister about how full information will be provided outside the primary legislation. I would be very happy if he wanted to write to me and other speakers today about that issue; that would be good.
My Lords, I support Amendments 5 and 13. I believe that they bring before the House necessary advice and information that can be valuable to those considering divorce and its implications.
The reality of living in the real world today is that many of the foundational principles of a strong society are being rocked. We are seeing those who look upon marriage as being a lifelong contract before God being frowned upon, just the same as the life of the unborn child—they have no voice and no right to be heard. However, I believe that children ought to be given greater consideration. We are told, in the light of the virus that is striking fear into the hearts of many people across the world tonight, that we should remember to be considerate of others. It is not all about us. It is not all about me. Those considering divorce also need to think about that: “It is not all about me; it is also about my children.” The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, reminded us that children have a right to know—they are not just “packages”.
Let us take as an example a child in a home, where one member of that family unit suddenly receives the request for a quick divorce. They had no knowledge that it was happening, but they are also not told the fault; you are not allowed to know the fault or there is no reason for you to be told it—it is just a quickie divorce. What does the child believe? It is faced with “My family has been torn apart, but why is Daddy leaving the home?” or “Why is Mummy stepping out of the marriage?” Have they a right to be told? Is that to be brought out? We talk about anger; what will they feel when a parent just walks away in a matter of months? Anger, guilt, frustration—the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, mentioned those things. In actual fact the children cannot feel them, but they do not know why their family unit is no longer together, because they do not necessarily have to be given a reason why the family is being torn apart.
It is vital that we realise that yes, irretrievable breakdown is a reality, and we know that in fact there comes a situation where two people cannot live together and that their staying together would be worse for the children. However, we should provide every opportunity and every piece of information and advice to try to keep families together in a society that is already broken.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and other noble Lords for their contributions to this debate.
I recognise, as does the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that there is concern about the impact of divorce on children, both at the time of the divorce and in the future. No one pretends that it will ever be easy on children, even where the relationship between the parents has been traumatising to them in the course of the marriage. The noble Baroness’s amendment would commit the Government to summarise academic research about
“the impact of divorce on different aspects of a child’s wellbeing.”
Academic research will grow over time, and any concise statement of the main findings will be fluid and continually subject to review. Indeed, the findings of any academic research would then be questioned as to what evidence there was supporting it, what the nature of any cohort examined was, and whether the study was, for example, longitudinal. Any number of questions would arise in that context. However, even if a statement of the main findings of such research could be achieved concisely, we are not persuaded that pointing to academic research will affect people’s decision to divorce, which must be the ultimate intent of the amendment. For most people, the application to divorce will come after much reflection about what the future will hold without the other spouse, and it will include consideration of the children as well. We therefore do not consider it appropriate to accept this amendment, and I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw it.
I turn to Amendment 13, tabled by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. He referred to this at an earlier stage of the Bill. I share, and understand, the spirit of the concerns he has expressed. It is right that all divorcing couples have opportunities to find out about support services and mediation. Where the Government’s view differs from the noble and right reverend Lord’s is that we see this as a practical, rather than a legislative, issue. I am happy to reassure noble Lords, and the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, that we will work hard to see what more can be done to improve the signposting of these services and information about them. That will require careful consideration, all the time thinking about the best places for couples to access the relevant information and to support them in making informed decisions once they have it. In particular, we will review the content on the GOV.UK website and check the ease with which people can navigate their way to services in their local areas. That website will likely be the first port of call for many people contemplating divorce, and at the point before they have decided even to seek advice from a lawyer. The information on GOV.UK therefore has the potential to be accessed before marital breakdown is, in a sense, irretrievable.
In addition, following the passing of this Bill, the Government will need to update the online divorce service as well as the paper-based system. As I have mentioned before in this House, we fully intend to use this updating process as an opportunity to strengthen signposting to services for applicants and, where appropriate, for respondent parties as well. That important work has yet to begin but I can give noble Lords examples of the kinds of ways in which we can improve signposting and information. For example, that could include prompts in both the paper and online systems. There are examples of this in current divorce petition forms, where marginal notes provide help to applicants. Similarly, in the online system, filter questions can help ensure that appropriate information and prompts are displayed for the user as they move through the online process. It would be inappropriate, for example, to suggest to a victim of domestic abuse that they may wish to consider relationship support. However, I am happy to make a firm commitment that we will work to make these prompts as effective as they can be in providing information about support services and mediation.
On the wider question touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, about funding requirements, we are making funding available for the Reducing Parental Conflict programme that has been working in local authority areas in England to encourage focus on the importance of relationship issues and how to build support for families. In addition, in the recent Budget, the Chancellor announced £2.5 million to fund research into how best to integrate family services, including the emerging family hub model. We are addressing these issues but, as I said, we consider them to be practical issues, not matters to be placed on the face of primary legislation. I hope that, with those assurances, the noble and right reverend Lord will see fit to not move his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his assurances. I think the House would welcome it if, at Third Reading, he was able to spell out a bit more the kind of work that is being done and give a clear statement about where responsibility lies for ensuring that this happens. I presume it would be with the Ministry of Justice. What he said was welcome and a categorical assurance about that would reassure many people.
I am much obliged to the noble and right reverend Lord. The responsibility would ultimately lie with the court service, which is an agency of the Ministry of Justice, to ensure that these processes do work in the way that I have indicated. I note what the noble and right reverend Lord said about further reassurance and I will take notice of that.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I am again pleased that we have had such a focused discussion on the implications of this legislation for children. We had an important one in Committee, but this was more widely spread. I am afraid that I am not particularly reassured by the response of the Minister—no doubt he would expect this—who does not even appear to think that this amendment is relevant to the Bill.
I very much hope that this debate will be read by Members of another place and that, when this Bill goes to their House, they will apply themselves to the task of seeking to factor into the divorce process a better consideration of the best interests of children than does the current draft. This is an important challenge if the Government are to have any chance of realising their objective of fixing broken Britain. I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
Clause 2: Judicial separation: removal of factual grounds
Amendments 5A to 6A not moved.
Clause 3: Dissolution: removal of requirement to establish facts
Amendments 7 to 9 not moved.
Clause 4: Dissolution orders: time limits
Amendment 9A not moved.
Amendment 10 agreed.
Clause 5: Separation: removal of factual grounds
Amendments 11 and 12 not moved.
Amendment 13 not moved.
14: Before Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Impact on marriage
Nothing in this Act changes the understanding of marriage as established by law.”
My Lords, I firmly support this Bill, but I can well understand the fears of those who worry that it will undermine the institution of marriage. I suspect that those fears are more widely shared by those outside the House than they have been expressed within it. The traditional understanding of marriage is well expressed in the Church of England service in which one person pledges themselves to another
“for better, for worse, for richer or poorer; in sickness and in health ... till death do us part.”
In the Book of Common Prayer this ends with the words:
“I give thee my troth”
and in the Alternative Service Book, “I make my vow.” I have always understood that the law of this country reflects that understanding of marriage. In the old days, apparently, register offices used to carry a notice that marriage according to the law of this country was—and here I adjust to take into account same-sex marriages—the union of one person with another, excluding all others, until death. This is borne out by Jowitt’s Dictionary of English Law, updated in August 2019, which states that it is
“the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”
but again, taking account of the possibility of this being two persons of the same sex.
My concern, as expressed at Second Reading, is that this venerable understanding might be changed in some people’s minds because the present Bill allows divorce on the say-so of one person to the marriage that it is has irretrievably broken down. They might therefore come to think that marriage vows are a contract like any other, which one person could break if the partner to the contract failed to fulfil their obligations. But marriage vows, wherever they are made, in church or a secular space, are an unconditional commitment of the same character as the oath of loyalty made by your Lordships in this House. It is not a commitment made on the basis of certain conditions being kept—provided the partner does this, that or the other. It is a commitment, whatever happens, for life. Marriages do break down irreparably; if they do, a humane way of recognising this in law must be found—and I believe that the Bill does this. But it is important that the Bill does not lead people to think that it undermines the institution of marriage as an unconditional commitment for life.
My amendment does not spell out the legal definition of marriage. There is no need. All we need is an assurance in the Bill that, as the amendment proposes
“Nothing in this Act changes the understanding of marriage as established by law.”
I understand from the Public Bill Office that this kind of phraseology is quite a regular procedure. I very much hope that the Minister will accept this simple amendment. I beg to move.
I thank the noble and right reverend Lord for moving his amendment. Of course, marriage is a contract. The statute law speaks of
“the persons contracting the marriage”
and sets out “the words of contract” when two people take each other as husband and wife. As with any contract, there are certain obligations, but how these obligations are spelled out has, of course, changed over the centuries. For example, it was at one time the duty at common law for a man to maintain his wife. That commitment, now gender neutral, is not explicit in the statute law, but it remains possible for either party to a marriage to apply to the court for financial provision—for reasonable maintenance—in cases of neglect, for example. Of course, it is the importance of obligations during the marriage that has led to the law providing for financial adjustment at the end of it.
But marriage is also much more than a contract. The statute does not spell that out—I suggest because it does not need to. It never needed to in the past and does not need to today. I venture that the importance of marriage to couples and to society is self-evident. Again, how that importance is expressed has changed over the centuries. In the rites of the Church of England, the wording of the marriage service in the 21st-century Common Worship differs from that in the 17th-century Book of Common Prayer. I am sure the noble and right reverend Lord would agree that the understanding of marriage is in essence the same, notwithstanding those changes. All that has really changed in the newer service book is that the expression of that commitment now has a different inflection, which more directly speaks to couples marrying today, rather than in the 17th century. All that is as it should be.
Our law provides only for how people enter into marriage, not what it is. I suggest that it is far better that our understanding of marriage derives not from law but from what people bring to it and the benefits our society recognises with regard to marriage. The understanding of marriage did not change when the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 introduced new grounds for divorce, nor when the Divorce Reform Act 1969 replaced these with the single ground of irretrievable breakdown—and nor will it change with this Bill passing into law.
The noble and right reverend Lord’s amendment cannot serve any direct purpose. He suggests that it allows us to put matters on the record. In a sense, he asked for an assurance from government that marriage under the law is not simply a contract. As I stand at this Dispatch Box, I am more than happy to assure him that this Government believe that the vital institution of marriage is a strong symbol of wider society’s desire to celebrate a mutual commitment and that it is one of the things that binds society together and makes families what they are. We support marriage for all these reasons, and I hope that reassurance will be sufficient to persuade the noble and right reverend Lord to consider withdrawing this amendment.
I thank the Minister for his response, but he clearly does not share my concern that many people are worried about the Bill. Although I do not think it undermines the institution of marriage, a lot of people are worried that it does. I really cannot understand why the Government are unwilling to accept this very simple amendment. It does not go into the details of what marriage is. Whether it is a particular kind of contract or an unconditional obligation is neither here nor there. All my amendment says is that this Bill does not change the legal definition of marriage. I believe it would do the Government a great deal of good to put this little clause in the Bill, because it would reassure a lot of people who feel that this Bill undermines the traditional institution of marriage.
I hope that perhaps the Minister might be able to come back at Third Reading having thought again about this. It is not a controversial amendment; it does not go into the definition of marriage. It just says that the Bill does not change the legal definition of marriage—what could be less controversial than that? But it would go a long way to reassuring people. I very much hope the Government will think again about this, but meanwhile I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
15: Before Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
“Report on the effect on children of divorce or dissolution in families with low conflict
(1) The Secretary of State must publish a report on the impact of divorce or dissolution on children of a marriage or civil partnership ending when there is either no conflict or low conflict between the parties.(2) The Secretary of State must lay the report under subsection (1) before both Houses of Parliament.”
My Lords, in response to my amendment on children in Committee, the Minister said:
“Divorce, at least in terms of the legal process, is of limited duration”.—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 549.]
It may be seen in those terms by parents but I suggest to the Minister that that is not the case for children. He also suggested that I should review the family test for the Bill in response to the research evidence that I presented in Committee. I have done so and it seems largely to focus on reducing conflict between parents. The document refers to one specific study, which is described as highlighting the fact that
“frequent, intense, poorly resolved and child related interparental conflict adversely affects long-term emotional, behavioural, social, academic development, and future intergenerational/interpersonal relationship behaviours for”
children and young people.
Much has been made in this House of the damage done to children by warring parents staying together—I think that message will have reached the public loud and clear—and I am sure that in those situations children are not surprised to find their parents choosing to divorce. However, I am concerned that both our parliamentary debate and general public discourse have been less informed of the fact that where there is no conflict between parents, divorce can be more harmful to their children than their staying together. Children can face a divorce that comes out of nowhere.
I quoted extensively in Committee from research that highlighted this issue. I hope the House will also allow me to summarise that again. First, of those who split up, low-conflict families are in the majority—that is, 60% compared to 9% high-conflict couples. Secondly, a 12-year longitudinal study found that children in low-conflict families had higher levels of well-being if their parents stayed together than if they divorced. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, quoted social scientist Elizabeth Marquardt, who said:
“The children of low-conflict couples fare worse after divorce because the divorce marks their first exposure to a serious problem. One day, without much warning, their world just falls apart.”
Thirdly, it is the new reality that children find themselves in that brings them stress after parents with low conflict split up—possibly in a new home, a new school and a new relationship with both parents as one moves away and the other takes on more responsibility.
My amendment does not say that parents must not divorce. Rather, it would require the Secretary of State to
“publish a report on the impact of divorce or dissolution on children of a marriage or civil partnership ending when there is either no conflict or low conflict between the parties.”
So far the Government have chosen to adopt the rather un-nuanced approach that conflict is always bad for children and that minimising it to the greatest possible extent is always good. They have not demonstrated any willingness to engage with the research that suggests that, first, while of course conflict is generally negative, there are occasions when a lack of conflict can make things even worse for children; and, secondly, that in a low-conflict context the interests of the children are best served by the marriage continuing. In that context, it makes sense that the Government should do more to encourage couples to fight for their marriage, rather than say, “It’s an autonomous decision” and go out of their way to remove obstacles to its termination.
In this context, I am moving this amendment because I want to ask the Lord Chancellor to engage formally with this research. The family test is inadequate because it does not do so. This is a major problem. There is a strong argument for saying that, until such time as the Lord Chancellor has engaged with this research, this legislation should proceed no further. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 16. I have brought back this amendment on the need for an annual report on the impact of the Bill because I disagree with the Minister’s reasons for rejecting it in Committee.
As I said, we could have moved to a divorce system that more closely resembled that of Scotland, which has much to recommend it, given that it sees so few fault applications. However, the Government have chosen to undertake an uncharted course, to a system described as enabling possibly the fastest divorce in the world, certainly for recipients of an application. Therefore, it seems irresponsible not to keep very careful track of any changes in our divorce, dissolution and separation patterns which ensue from this very significant change, especially given the existing high rates of family breakdown in this country.
I mentioned in Committee that research on which the Government have relied to justify removing fault points to how this degrades the commitment of marriage. Professor Wolfers says that its benefits are reduced; therefore cohabitation, which is widely agreed to be a less stable relationship form, becomes more common. So this will, very likely, have a knock-on effect on the number of children who experience the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.
I disagree with the Minister that the requirement to report annually on the number of divorce applications, including by gender, is unnecessary, given that the data is already publicly available and published in the Family Court Statistics Quarterly. The point of reporting is to be accountable for changes in that data and to draw Parliament’s attention to it. If the Government are not convinced that the Act will have a detrimental effect on any of these patterns, they should have no qualms about reporting on it.
I also disagree that it would be unduly onerous for the courts service to collect income data, or unduly intrusive for the applicants to supply it. The collection of income data is easily achieved by including this in standard demographic data income bands, the completion of which would of course be voluntary. We are constantly told that data collection is important to the Government, to help understand why people make choices, and to help make forecasts for the future. Understanding how different income brackets are affected by a policy is therefore not unusual or shocking. It makes no sense to me that in this area the Government are so coy about asking people to give them this information.
In conclusion, there is an inconsistency in the Government’s approach to informing themselves when it comes to tracking the effects of this Bill, despite the heavy social costs of relationship failure and the ramifications across the whole of government. I encourage the Minister to see the constructive point of this amendment in helping the future outworking of this law.
My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 17 in my name. It seeks to address some confusion that emerged during debate in Committee. I will not press this amendment to a vote but I hope that, as a result of this debate, we may gain greater clarity about the place for reconciliation during the divorce process.
We have heard very mixed messages from the Government on their commitment to reconciliation in the divorce process. On the one hand, there have been repeated statements of interest in promoting it. I have found no fewer than 30 occasions where the Government have said that promoting reconciliation during divorce is part of the policy intention behind these reforms.
I would like to highlight a few of these statements. The initial consultation document from September 2018 stated:
“The reformed law should have two objectives: to make sure that the decision to divorce continues to be a considered one, and that spouses have an opportunity to change course”.
The Government’s response to the consultation in April last year stated:
“Sometimes, a marriage will still be reparable at the point at which one spouse seeks the divorce … But the law can—and should—have a role in providing couples with an opportunity to reflect on that momentous decision and to pull back from the brink if they decide that reconciliation is achievable.”
At Second Reading of the Bill in the other place in June last year, the then Justice Minister stated:
“The Government believe that the need to confirm to the court that it may make the conditional order, and to apply to the court for the final order, means that a divorce or dissolution is never automatic and that the decision to divorce is a considered one, with opportunities for a change of heart right up to the last moment.”—[Official Report, Commons, 25/6/19; col. 580.]
This is consistent with the family impact test assessment, which suggests that one of the strengths of the new system is the increased scope that it will provide for reconciliation. It states:
“The current law works against reconciliation by incentivising (in order to get a divorce more quickly) a spouse to make allegations about the other spouse’s conduct which can create conflict … The current law also offers little opportunity for reflection and conciliation, as the initial decree of divorce can come only a matter of weeks after the divorce proceedings have started.”
It then says that the Government want to exploit the new opportunities for reconciliation under a no-fault system, saying:
“We want to create conditions for couples and parents to reconcile if they can”.
Yet despite these repeated statements in support of reconciliation, and the suggestion that the scope of reconciliation will be enhanced in the no-fault system, there is little or no evidence of a political will to exploit this. On the contrary, there have instead been contradictory statements that reconciliation is not possible once the divorce process has started. I was concerned that, in response to my amendment in Committee, the Minister replied:
“The noble Lord expressed concern, as did others, that the Government’s statistics give the impression that a significant number of divorce petitions never reach decree absolute. There is, however, no evidence that these represent cases of reconciliation.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 537.]
Later in the proceedings, he said:
“I understand the desire of noble Lords to see that the marriage relationship can be supported, but it has to be supported at the right time. That is not at the point of an application for divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown, which is why we do not consider that the Bill is the right vehicle for tackling the wider issues that lead to relationship breakdown.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 565.]
There seems to be some conflict between these two sets of statements, so I am probing the Government’s intention. If one believes that reconciliation, once divorce begins, is so unlikely that it makes no sense to prioritise it, then the statements in the consultation, consultation response, press releases, family impact assessment and at previous readings of this Bill all seem misplaced.
Rereading the debates, I observe that when pressed on why the assertion that reconciliation in divorce is insignificant, the Minister placed great emphasis on one piece of research from the Nuffield Foundation which has already been discussed. That report has quite a small sample size: around 300 court files, of which 51 did not complete the divorce process. Of these the information suggests that: in five cases, there was an apparent change of course or mind by the petitioner; in four cases there was acknowledgement returned but no application for a nisi; and in one, reconciliation after nisi pronounced. In 10 out of the 51, there was no clear reason why the cases did not proceed. This seems a very small sample from which to make such strong definitive statements that reconciliation is not possible in the divorce process. Furthermore, this goes against research I have seen from the United States conducted by Doherty, Peterson and Willoughby, who engaged with a sample of 2,484 parents during the divorce process and found that 25% of those individuals indicated a belief that their marriage could still be saved.
I am grateful to the Minister, who yesterday drew my attention to the assessment provided by Newcastle University of the reconciliation pilot studies run under the Family Law Act. He cited those to justify not placing too much emphasis on reconciliation once the divorce process had begun. Indeed, the following line was quoted to that end in earlier debates:
“For most, the information about marriage support will not come early enough to give them a real chance of saving their marriage.”
But the sentence after that quote was omitted from the earlier debates. It states:
“Perhaps, in an implemented system, between 5 and 10 per cent of attendees will turn back from the brink of divorce.”
Five to 10 per cent may not sound very much but in the context of 100,000 divorces a year, that could be 5,000 to 10,000 couples. Even if we were more pessimistic and said that only half the couples got this information, that would still be 2,500 to 5,000 couples reconciling. The benefits of this would be considerable. It is clear that the researchers did not conclude that promoting reconciliation during the divorce process had failed or not succeeded enough to justify an ongoing focus on saving marriages within the divorce process. Instead, they argued that
“the research suggests that this kind of information needs to be more carefully targeted at those for whom the door to reconciliation is a viable option when they attend an information meeting.”
The report spoke particularly positively about the pilot studies, where people had a meeting with a marriage counsellor, stating:
“The MWMC was well-received in the pilots and provides a blueprint for implementation. It was particularly helpful in moving people on from ‘stuck’ positions, enabling them either to put effort into possible reconciliation, or to move forward into divorce feeling more able to cope with it.”
Hearing some speak about the provisions of the Family Law Act, you get the impression these were draconian measures that were deeply unhelpful. In fact, the messages coming out of the pilots were very positive. Some 90% of attendees were positive about the experience. The report states:
“The vast majority of those attending an information meeting described it as useful, and the information leaflets as both user-friendly and accessible, and found that their combined levels of knowledge about a wide range of subjects were extended.”
Given the huge public policy benefits of marriage to health and well-being, which I set out in my speech at Second Reading, the Government need to be on a very firm foundation indeed if they are to cast aside the significance of the shortfall between the number of divorces commenced and concluded, suggesting with great confidence that reconciliation is negligible once the divorce process has begun. I do not believe that one can argue that conclusively from the Nuffield or indeed the Newcastle report. Moreover, the statistics I have quoted from Nuffield are based on research which looks at couples who divorce under the current system. We do not know how couples will act under the new system. Law and prophecy are two separate subjects. Indeed, the Nuffield report was very helpful when it stated that under a system where one party is notified of the intention to divorce, as proposed by this Bill,
“there is also the possibility that notification would be more facilitative of reconciliation.”
I see nothing in the present research to demonstrate authoritatively that we should not bother actively promoting reconciliation during the divorce process. In this context, the Lord Chancellor should produce a report, as my amendment proposes,
“drawing from multiple peer reviewed academic sources comparing the scope for reconciliation under a fault-based divorce system with a no-fault based divorce system”.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 15 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. As I noted in my speech in Committee, in all our debates on the Bill we must not forget children. The Family Impact Test assessment affirms the Bill on the basis that it seeks to “reduce conflict”. However, while I fully understand the Government’s desire to reduce conflict in the divorce process, it is telling that the majority of couples who divorce are in low-conflict relationships.
The figure mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, is that 60% of couples that split are in low-conflict relationships. This research comes from Professor Spencer James of Brigham Young University. He states that these low-conflict couples are
“largely indistinguishable before they split from couples that remain together”.
These findings challenge the assumption that the majority of couples that split up are in constant conflict with one another, yet that assumption seems to underpin this legislation. James’s research comes from the UK’s largest household panel survey, Understanding Society. He found that only 9% of married couples in the United Kingdom who split could be described as high-conflict couples. He states:
“Both unhappiness and conflict are far less prevalent among couples who are about to split than one might reasonably expect.”
All of this is important when we return to research on the impact on children of family breakdown. Parents are more likely fall into poverty following separation. Therefore, they need much greater levels of state support. Some 60% of lone parents receive housing benefit, compared to just 10% of couple parents. Even when income and education are taken into account, studies find negative effects on children from divorce. One study, from Lee and McLanahan, looking at 2,952 mothers and children, revealed that instability especially affects children’s socioemotional development.
Yet the impact of divorce on children seems to depend on what came before. Children tend to do better if their parents exit a high-conflict relationship and worse if they exit a low-conflict one. As James notes in the research I mentioned earlier:
“This potentially counterintuitive finding in fact makes great sense. The break-up of a low conflict relationship comes largely out of the blue for the children. They are then left to conclude either that relationships are profoundly unpredictable or that they are somehow responsible. It’s easy to see how either of these conclusions can then undermine and sabotage their own future prospects of a loving committed relationship”.
This amendment would require the Government simply to look further into the impact of no or low-conflict divorce on children. It is a significant failing that the Family Impact Test assessment has not engaged with this. I think there will be a good deal of benefit in gaining greater understanding of why these couples divorce and therefore in investing more effort in helping them. If these married couples are saying they are relatively happy one year before divorce, what pushes them to make that decision? Understanding that would enable targeted support and help.
The research I have talked about should give us hope. If 60% of couples of are low-conflict and many of them are happy one year before they divorce, perhaps those marriages could be saved. Divorce is generally not in the best interests of the children of those families, so keeping them together would be a great benefit to them. I support Amendment 15.
My Lords, I wish to speak in support of Amendment 17, which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McColl. I am aware that he does not intend to test the opinion of the House on it, but nevertheless I think there are some things that merit being said.
The noble Lord noted in Committee that there are no less than 27 references to reconciliation in the Government’s comments setting out their response to their consultation on divorce law reform. They include the statement that,
“the law can—and should—have a role in providing couples with an opportunity to reflect on that momentous decision and to pull back from the brink if they decide that reconciliation is achievable”.
If we look beyond that document there are plenty of other examples, including in the Family Impact Test assessment of this Bill, which states:
“The current law works against reconciliation by incentivising … a spouse to make allegations about the other spouse’s conduct which can create conflict. The alternative option which requires the couple to live apart for a substantial period of time can disincentivise efforts at reconciliation because the separation period can be affected if the couple try living together again. The current law also offers little opportunity for reflection and conciliation, as the initial decree of divorce can come only a matter of weeks after the divorce proceedings have started.”
In promoting a no-fault system, the Family Impact Test states:
“We want to create conditions for couples and parents to reconcile if they can”.
In this context, it seems to me that commissioning research on how reconciliation is best facilitated under the new regime proposed by the Bill compared to the fault-based system that we have now is vital. The Minister might be preparing to tell me that reconciliation rarely happens during the divorce process, as he did in Committee when he said that there was little evidence that divorces that do not proceed do so because the couple have reconciled. If the Government really think that, it seems completely contradictory to all their statements about reconciliation.
I hope the Minister will not try to square this circle by simply saying that the Government’s position is that while it is not worth prioritising reconciliation, of course they support reconciliation when it is possible. Multiple statements of commitment to the promotion of reconciliation in the Government’s response to the consultation, press releases and family test are such that it does not make sense for the Government then to say that, by the time the divorce process starts, it is too late for reconciliation.
I note that when the Minister suggested this argument in Committee, he cited in defence the Newcastle University study of the Family Law Act 1996 pilots. He told the House about the information meetings that were part of the Family Law Act 1996 and said:
“The purpose of that meeting included providing the parties with information about marriage counselling. Academic research into various models of information meetings found that they came too late to save marriages and tended to incline parties who were unsure towards divorce.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 564.]
He also implied elsewhere in Committee that the information meetings were not effective.
In truth, the report actually suggested that, if the reconciliation provisions in the Family Law Act were properly implemented within the divorce process, between 5% and 10% of divorce applications could be stopped. In my estimation, that is hugely significant. Saving 5% to 10% of marriages that will otherwise end in divorce means saving between 5,000 and 10,000 marriages per year. That would be an extraordinary achievement.
Indeed, the University of Newcastle evaluation says:
“Our research demonstrates beyond doubt that separating and divorcing families need more and better information than is currently available, that those who attended information meetings on a voluntary basis in the pilots appreciated the information provided, and that the MWMC [meeting with the marriage counsellor] is capable of helping people with a wide variety of agendas to move forward and take the next steps.”
It also states:
“Looking at the evidence from the information meeting pilots it is reasonable to conclude that information provision and the MWMC did and can support the principles of the Family Law Act. Some attendees have reflected carefully on the decision to divorce and some took steps to save the marriage; messages about reducing conflict and being conciliatory were understood and respected; and parents were helped to consider the needs of their children. These impacts are not easily measured by monitoring the use or non-use of particular services, but can be understood in more subtle terms.”
The evaluation recommended that the information needed to be personally tailored to the needs of the couple, rather than one size fits all.
In this context, the argument that the Bill is about just the divorce process and that marriage support should be addressed elsewhere is very difficult to sustain. First, it is not consistent with many of the Government’s statements about their focus on reconciliation within the divorce process. Secondly, it is not consistent with what the academic research says about the importance of promoting reconciliation within the divorce process. Thirdly, it fails to engage with the logic of their own Family Test Assessment, which says that finding reconciliation in a fault-based system is hard and that no-fault provides new opportunities in this regard. On this point, I note that the Nuffield report, which some have quoted selectively to defend not prioritising reconciliation during the divorce process, actually states that under a no-fault system, such as that proposed by this Bill,
“there is also the possibility that notification would be more facilitative of reconciliation.”
In this context, the Government’s failure to use Section 22 of the Family Law Act is deeply unfortunate. They should have allocated grants through Section 22 to really seek to understand the opportunities for greater reconciliation in a no-fault system and then applied Section 22 money to help exploit those new opportunities. I had hoped that the Section 22 amendment would have been brought back on Report. I very much hope that it is pursued in another place. I very much hope that the Government will take cognisance of what has been said here today.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this part of the debate. I will speak to Amendments 15, 16 and 17.
Amendment 15 was moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on the impact of divorce or dissolution on children of a marriage or civil partnership ending
“when there is either no conflict”
as it is termed, “or low conflict”, as it is termed, “between the parties.”
It would require the publication of a report laid before Parliament on the impact on children of divorce or dissolution but it does not define what is meant in this context by “low conflict” and, for that matter, it does not define what would be meant by “no conflict” for this purpose. It is also not clear whether that could be achieved by pointing to existing academic research or whether the Government would need to conduct their own research, questioning parents during and after divorce about the nature of their relationship, or indeed questioning children, presumably only if of a suitable age, about their feelings and evaluating any impact on their life chances long into the future.
The very indefinite nature of such a report means that people who, on publication, would have wanted the report to have researched in one direction might find that it simply does not do so and does not assist them in that regard. Therefore, with great respect, we do not agree that the amendment would serve any useful purpose. It would not deter people from divorcing. Even if they read the report, they would be left considering their situation and that of their children, not that of a group of people who were the subject of research. For all those reasons I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
Amendment 16, tabled by my noble friend Lord Farmer, would require statistical reporting every year beyond that which the Ministry of Justice currently publishes. It would not require what was referred to in Committee as the “demographics” of the parties in geographic locations, but it would still require the income of spouses and civil partners for each divorce or dissolution application, as explicitly stated in the amendment.
As I observed in Committee, the number of divorce applications, along with the gender of applicants, is already publicly available and is published under the Family Court Statistics Quarterly. However, with regard to income, we continue to be of the firm view that, aside from the burden on the courts of collecting that data about income, it would be an unwarranted intrusion on application of what is, in any event, a difficult time. We simply do not consider that there is a case to compel applicants, or indeed respondents, to supply such information. Indeed, it could mislead people into thinking that the court considered income relevant to the grant of the divorce.
The court will only properly require information about income in separate proceedings for financial provision orders, and we see no reason to draw that into the divorce process, which, if I may say so, is the mechanical process of ending the marriage. It will also only properly require information about children in separate proceedings for children’s orders, and, as I have said before, we do not consider that that should be drawn into the process of ending the marriage. Therefore, again, I invite my noble friend not to press that amendment.
I turn to Amendment 17, in the name of my noble friend Lord McColl of Dulwich. The Government are clear that divorce must be a last resort, and that is why we are retaining the requirement for people to confirm the intention to divorce at two further stages beyond the original application. It is also why we are building in a minimum of 20 weeks before people can apply for the conditional order—the first pronouncement from the court that the marriage is capable of being dissolved.
Some have told us that it is at that point in the existing process—the decree from the court—that the reality of divorce sinks in. However, evidence points to the prospect of reconciliation being very low. No divorce process should be automatic but it is simply the means to bring to an end a marriage that is already no longer functional after attempts to revive it have essentially been exhausted. Under the current process, about three in five people seeking divorce make allegations about their spouse’s behaviour or adultery. Having to give and receive allegations of an intensely personal nature can only sever the relationship further. I do not see that the current process is particularly conducive to repairing the relationship, and at such a late stage.
This amendment would result in a report which I suspect would satisfy no one. Some people may want to see evidence for whether more or fewer couples reconcile after our reforms are implemented, but that will mean waiting years for the report so that any longer-term trend can be assessed. Other people may want to see comparisons between the existing divorce processes internationally, but they differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, whether or not they are based on fault, and of course some jurisdictions have a hybrid process. The report envisaged in this amendment would not put an end to differing views about the evidence. I would also note that there is a difference between what is termed “scope for reconciliation”—that is, the theoretical possibility—and whether couples actually reconcile.
The Government have taken account of peer-reviewed academic sources in developing the proposals in this Bill, as has been noted by some noble Lords, but we are not just beholden to their conclusions. We have also taken into account what was said when we consulted on our proposals. The matter of this amendment is one for academic study and I fear that it would be fruitless for the Government to undertake it. For these reasons, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments in this group.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and I am not at all surprised that there is evidence which suggests that reducing conflict is a good thing for children. Indeed, it would be surprising if it did not, and certainly it is not my purpose to argue for more conflict.
The purpose of the amendment has been simply to point out that there is other important research which suggests that reducing conflict beyond a certain level is unhelpful. The family impact assessment does not engage with this research and nothing the Minister has said in his response suggests that the Government have done so; in fact, far from it. However, it is important that the findings of this research are taken seriously in framing the Bill, so I hope that the matter will be picked up and pursued in the other place. In the circumstances, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 15 withdrawn.
Amendments 16 and 17 not moved.