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Nuptial Agreements

Volume 829: debated on Tuesday 25 April 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to introduce the draft Nuptial Agreements Bill, as drafted and recommended by the Law Commission in its Matrimonial Property, Needs and Agreements report, published on 26 February 2014 (HC 1089).

My Lords, it was announced on 4 April that the Law Commission will be conducting a review of the law on financial provision on divorce. While this review is taking place, the Government do not consider it the right time to legislate in respect of nuptial agreements. The Government favour a holistic rather than a piecemeal approach to any future legislative reform in this area.

My Lords, I am disappointed but not surprised by that response. I declare my interest as practising in this field. It is well known that this is stand-alone legislation which came about as a consequence of a House of Lords decision in Radmacher in 2010. During the coalition, the Law Commission set up a paper and, as a consequence, in 2014 there was a response which is oven-ready for putting on the statute book.

Instead of that happening, with almost indecent haste and despite the warnings, the no-fault divorce law has proceeded through these Houses. We have more people with pre-nuptial agreements and more people getting divorced, and there is no direction for the judges as to how the law has changed as a consequence of these agreements being enforceable. Please can the Minister explain why it is acceptable to delay this legislation, which would be quite simple to push through, in circumstances where the courts are over-burdened, the judges have no direction and lawyers practising in this field have lucrative groundhog days ahead?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Shackleton for her question. The answer is twofold: first, the Government consider that the present root-and-branch review of financial provision is better than looking at a particular outcrop within that landscape. Secondly, any Government have to prioritise. In recent years, priority has been given, for example, to the Domestic Abuse Act 2021; the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2022, which introduced no-fault divorce; and the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022, which made it illegal to marry under the age of 18. These are all fundamental reforms and I make no apology for prioritising those measures.

My Lords, may I start by wishing the Minister a happy birthday—and ask him whether there is any prospect of this Bill being enacted in his lifetime and mine? He has mentioned all these other statutes, which are not really relevant. The failure to enact this Bill undermines the no-fault divorce law, because the failure to have binding nuptial agreements leaves couples in as antagonistic and expensive a situation as before. Will he please get on with it?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for those birthday wishes. It is often said that life begins at 40 but experience shows that it is very much later than that. I very much hope that we will be able to legislate in her lifetime, if not my own. Prenups are undoubtedly an important issue. Since 2010, the law has been that there is a presumption in favour of enforcing prenuptial agreements unless it is unfair to do so. Secondly, although this is an important question, it affects a relatively small and privileged cohort, and it must take its place in the queue on that basis.

The Minister refers to a small cohort. Has he any idea how many nuptial agreements exist as a percentage of those people who get married these days?

My Lords, I do not have that information. I will see if I can find it and if I can, I will write to the noble Lord.

My Lords, this is a sensible move. It would make sense to introduce this legislation now, provided that it does not affect the overall review that is taking place. Why does the Minister not just act on this one piece of legislation now?

My Lords, it is hard for me to add to my previous answer. The Government feel that we must look at the whole landscape and get the law on financial provision sorted out, and that gives us the context in which we can decide what to do about prenups.

My Lords, as others have said today, such a Bill can stand completely independently of the planned reform. The whole point is that those who embark on this do not want to litigate, in the unhappy event of a divorce, and do not want to expose themselves to all the uncertainties of the court’s discretion. Why on earth can the Government not do something about it now?

My Lords, it is not a straight- forward issue; even the Law Commission’s report of 2014 made it clear that there had to be quite a number of exceptions in relation to financial need before one could legislate. As I say, the Government prefer to proceed on a broad front rather than deal with this issue specifically.

My Lords, I have practised as a divorce lawyer in South Africa, where the prenuptial agreement is respected, and it should not be seen purely as a protection for high net worth individuals. Why is there so much resistance to respecting and introducing a prenuptial agreement?

My Lords, the Government have confidence in the courts to apply the general law, which is that prenups should in general be respected unless it is unfair to do so. That is not far off what the Law Commission recommended in 2014.

My Lords, most couples going through a divorce do not have their financial arrangements made by judge. Some reach settlement with the assistance of lawyers, others through mediation and arbitration. Of course, many do not have access to lawyers because of the withdrawal of legal aid. When the holistic review looks at financial provision for divorce, will that include the increase in legal aid for divorcing couples?

I think the answer to that question, for which I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is that this is not directly within the Law Commission’s terms of reference, but it is well within the review of civil legal aid upon which the Government are currently embarking.

My Lords, it was very reassuring to hear the Minister say that we need to consider legislation very carefully before it is introduced and see how it fits in with other Acts and so on. Can he assure us that similar procedures have been applied to some of the legislation currently before the House with which we are struggling?