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Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020

Volume 806: debated on Tuesday 13 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the passage of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, what progress they have made in introducing the changes required (1) to divorce procedure, (2) to court information technology systems, and (3) to online information and guidance.

My Lords, the Government are working to an indicative timeframe of autumn 2021. We are currently working with the Family Procedure Rule Committee to identify amendments to court rules. This will determine how certain key aspects of the revised legal process will operate in practice. Changes to court IT systems and online information and guidance will follow in due course.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Is the Ministry of Justice planning to use the online form to signpost potential divorce applicants to relationship support and other help, so that some may be diverted away from the process and marriages might be saved?

I assure the House that the Government will look at a signpost service from GOV.UK webpages, which will often be the first port of call for those thinking about divorce. The Government will also look for opportunities to bed, within the divorce application process, appropriate information and links about support services, such as mediation, and marriage and relationship support.

How many measures drawing attention to available help when dealing with marital difficulty will have been received by, first, the applicant, and secondly, the respondent, in the course of a divorce application at present?

Currently, both petitioners and respondents receive up to four notifications during the divorce process. Each of these contains get-help signs linking to support services. When revising the system for processing divorces to implement our reforms, we intend to do all we can to make signposting to support services as effective as it can be.

My Lords, will the Minister add to the support that will be given online the importance to the children of both parents in most cases?

I assure the noble and learned Baroness that, when the Government look at making these reforms, children will be foremost in their mind.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us what proposals the Government have to ensure that legal advice is available, particularly for those engaged in partnership separation who have children?

I will give the same answer as before: children are extremely important. In future, before people look into divorce, all the advice will be online and support will be there.

Can the Minister assure the House that guidance will include the need for all discussions, telephone calls, emails, Facebook or WhatsApp messages and other modern means of communication to be properly recorded, so that the court can be assured that issues of finance and children have been fully explored and fairly agreed, and not imposed by a dominant partner—or, worse, by a trained and expert lawyer acting on behalf of the other party?

My Lords, I am sure that the Family Procedure Rule Committee is looking at all these issues that relate to reform and the implementation of the Act.

My Lords, can my noble friend say when the Family Procedure Rule Committee expects to resolve the issue of how the respondent to a divorce application gets the full 20 weeks’ notice, or as close as possible, before a conditional order is issued?

The 20-week rule is an important part of the Act and the Family Procedure Rule Committee is going through all the issues required. I cannot tell the noble Baroness exactly when this will happen, but it will be an important part of the procedure that will come into being in autumn 2021.

My Lords, during the debates on the passage of the then Bill, it was acknowledged that the most divisive, bitter, wasteful and expensive element of a divorce is the financial settlement and that the law on this needs reform. Without this, the new divorce law will not achieve its stated objective of no fault. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, gave a commitment on 16 March that the law on financial provision will be reviewed. Can the Minister update the House on its progress?

Yes, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, did say that. The Lord Chancellor has set up a working group to assess any evidence to change the law on financial provision for divorce. This review will be led by evidence, which is yet to be gathered, on whether there are problems with the current law. The Ministry of Justice is considering the membership and terms of reference of that working group.

[Inaudible]the Lord Chancellor made a commitment that the Government will

“work harder to co-ordinate, to bring together the strands of policy that sit with various Departments and to ensure that we have a family policy that is fit for the 2020s”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/6/20; col. 902.]

Can my noble friend report on what progress has been made in fulfilling that pledge?

The Ministry of Justice is involved in ongoing work with other government departments aimed at strengthening families and providing more joined-up support for those facing or experiencing relationship breakdown. The first meeting of that cross-government group took place earlier this month. The noble Lord may also be aware of the £2.5 million in the Budget that the Government are investing in research on how best to integrate family services, including family hubs.

I am sure that many people already hope to avoid the horrible blame game of the present divorce system, waiting for the new system to be in place. The Minister said that autumn is the target, but that has always been the case. Can the Minister indicate whether that target will be met, because many people depend on it?

I find the sources of help signposted on the government website, particularly those provided by Relate, very clear and sensitive. But in almost every case depicted, there is an assumption that those who have started proceedings will want to continue with them. Will the Minister ask Relate to look again and take into account the fact that some people want help to stay together, in their relationship? That should be properly recognised on their website.

I hope I heard what the noble and right reverend Lord said. The 20 weeks are there specifically to make time for people to reconsider if they want to. All relationship or marital support will be online, so they can stop the proceedings if they need and want to.

My Lords, family courts have complained about trivial applications because of unresolved issues between divorcees. As a spouse can divorce their partner unilaterally, and the spouse has no opportunity to raise issues in a non-adversarial divorce process, what steps will the Government take to ensure that these conflicts can be addressed, or else there will be a large increase in applications?

My Lords, the so-called unilateral divorce by one spouse has effectively been available for nearly 50 years. It is only the basis of the divorce that can be contested, not the application itself. Interestingly, only 2% of divorce petitions are contested. By reducing the potential for conflict between divorcing parents, our reforms should make the escalation of trivial disputes into applications less, not more, likely. In addition, the Ministry of Justice has worked with Cafcass and OnePlusOne to develop the Co-Parent Hub, offering a one-stop shop for families, including alternative dispute resolution options.