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No-fault Divorce

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the letter from Lord Keen of Elie to Baroness Deech on 16 March 2020, what progress they have made on reforming the law governing financial provision on divorce to align with the introduction of no fault divorce.

My Lords, the letter from my noble and learned friend Lord Keen was sent at the conclusion of the parliamentary process for the divorce Act. In the intervening two years, we have prioritised the implementation of the fundamental reforms of that Act, which will commence on 6 April. Following that commencement, we will consider how best to proceed with the commitment in that letter, and we will announce our intentions in due course.

My Lords, the new no-fault divorce law is coming into force in three weeks’ time, but the most miserable and litigious part of it will remain: the law about splitting assets and paying maintenance. That law is so bad that the ministry is paying couples £500 each to mediate and avoid it. The promise was made two years ago to review it; where is that review? Gathering evidence is no excuse for not formulating principle, and I can offer this piece of evidence right away: legal costs eat up chunks of the assets. Unless it is reformed, the no-fault divorce law will fail to achieve its aims. Will the Minister assure the House that vested interests are not blocking reform, and will he give a timetable for completion of the financial provision project?

My Lords, I do not make any apology for the mediation voucher scheme; it is important to encourage mediation in family law, as indeed across the civil justice system more generally. However, we have committed to exploring the financial provision aspects of divorce after the Act comes into effect. I cannot give the noble Baroness a timetable, but I assure her that we will look at this as a matter of principle and will not be bowed down by vested interests, whether legal or otherwise.

Following the reference made by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, to vested interests, I ask: have the Government had representations from solicitors practising in this lucrative area, or from members of the family Bar, to keep fault as an issue in financial provision proceedings? If so, what was the Government’s response?

My Lords, I have not had representations from those entities, but I dare say that the department might have done. We get representations, frankly, from all areas of the legal profession, and indeed more broadly, all the time. We will look at this issue on its merits. We have set out that we want to make sure that financial matters are dealt with as amicably as possible. The divorce Act will be a very good start and, as I say, we are encouraging it through family hubs, mediation vouchers and many other ways too.

My Lords, I speak as a foot soldier operating under the current system. I would like to explore with the Minister the redundancy of the current legislation, which is now 40 years old. Society has changed, as has the way we operate, and the rules are so left to the judge’s discretion that there is an industry—I am almost ashamed to practise in it—which fine-tunes, for money, applications for ancillary relief because no one can predict the outcome of such an application accurately. We talk about the mythical mediator, but the mediator has to know what the rules are, because how can they mediate without the rules being clear and explicit? The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and I—

I would like my noble friend the Minister to be nailed down to a timetable, and I would like to know what that is because—I was going to build up to the question—we are fully welcoming the Act that Parliament has passed facilitating divorce without the end of the financial remedies being sorted. We need a timetable.

My Lords, I am not sure whether my noble friend is a foot solider or somewhere between a major-general and a field marshal in this area of the law. May I gently suggest that perhaps not all lawyers charge by the word? I respectfully say that in this area of law, as in many areas of law, there is a balance to be struck between discretion on the one hand and certainty on the other. You need clear rules, but you also need a judge to have discretion to do the right thing in the individual case. That is what we will be striving for when we look at this area of the law about financial provision on divorce.

My Lords, as a former foot soldier who tried a very large number of these cases, I believe it is a far more complicated area than either the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, or the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, has said to the House. I would be very unhappy with a timetable; the Government ought to get on with it, but they need to take a lot of sensible advice before they put forward proposals. That is my suggestion to the Minister.

My Lords, I am very grateful for that question. Of course, we will take advice from a broad range of stakeholders and others. Indeed, in preparing for today I also looked at the laws in other jurisdictions. Although it is fair to say that, for example, prenuptial agreements are enforceable in Spain, which they generally are not in England and Wales, they are not enforceable if the judge considers that they are detrimental to the children or seriously damaging to one of the spouses. So again, the House will see that that balance of certainty and discretion is so important to try to reach in this area.

My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said when she first proposed this Question, the whole point was to make divorce, by being no fault, less acrimonious and less difficult. The missing part is the financial aspect. In the current system that creates more acrimony and difficulty, especially when children are involved. When the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, he said that such a review would take “two to three years”. That plays into what the Minister said just now about how complex and difficult this is, but does that not mean that we ought to make a start as soon as possible? It feels like the ghost of Sir Humphrey is around, with “in the fullness of time”, “as resources allow” and “in due course”. Nobody is asking the Minister to come up with answers now—only to start the review, which is urgently needed.

My Lords, I hope I have made it clear that we are talking about a matter of weeks once the Act comes into force. We will look at this area very carefully. I know that the previous and current Lord Chancellors are focused on this area. Looking at family law generally, we want to see fewer private family cases before the court and maintain the public family cases before the court. Many private family cases really ought to be resolved out of court, through mediation and in other ways. We will work towards that.

My Lords, how have the Government strengthened support for separating couples in preparation for the commencement of this divorce Act on 6 April? In particular, how will they help ex-partners and children cope with the considerable emotion and conflict that being unilaterally divorced will provoke and which might last for years?

My Lords, we of course recognise that divorce can be a stressful time for families. We want to make sure that support is there for separating couples. We have invested in family hubs and the family mediation voucher scheme. We also have a Reducing Parental Conflict programme. However, we also think that the new divorce Act will lead to more amicable divorce and will itself take some of the heat out of the issue.

My Lords, let us not put the cart before the horse by changing the law before thinking about the most acrimonious part of divorce. Is it not true that a no-fault divorce does not necessarily mean that there was no fault? In which case, is it not all the more important that there is equality of arms between the two people concerned when it comes to mediation on a financial settlement?

My Lords, yes: no-fault divorce means that the question of fault is essentially irrelevant to the fact of the divorce. As to equality of arms, that is where mediation is so useful. Families who participated in the mediation voucher scheme tell us that it really took the heat out of the issue as they could sit down outside a court setting and resolve their issues. For every multi-million pound divorce that you read about in the papers, hundreds—indeed, thousands—of divorces go through without too much acrimony, other than the acrimony perhaps inherent in the fact of being divorced. We want to build on what we think is a movement in the right direction.