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Divorce: Financial Provision

Volume 828: debated on Wednesday 8 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what progress they have made with their three-year review of the law governing financial provision on divorce since the commitment made by the then Advocate General for Scotland Lord Keen of Elie in his letter dated 16 March 2020 (DEP2020-0150) to gather evidence, consult and develop recommendations on this matter.

My Lords, the letter to which the noble Baroness refers was sent during the passage of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020. Since then, we have prioritised the implementation of that Act and the digital systems that go with it, the court recovery programme during and after the pandemic, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Act 2022 and further work on the family courts. I hope to announce a review of financial provision very shortly.

My Lords, I fear that the noble Baroness, Lady Shackleton, and I were misled when, three years ago, we were guaranteed a review of the financial elements of divorce. Relying on that, we refrained from pressing amendments. The law that relates to splitting money on divorce is so antagonistic and unreformed that it undermines the alleged good points of the no-fault divorce law. We are lagging 50 years behind nearly every other country in the western world, including Australia. The amount of discretion in our law makes it very hard for unrepresented parties. Money that should go to the children is being spent on legal costs. Even judges have called this law “apocalyptic” —accessible only to the rich. When will the Government reform this very bad law?

My Lords, I pay warm tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, my noble friend Lady Shackleton and many others for their work in this area. Respectfully, I do not accept the characterisation that the Government have misled everybody; we have had our hands somewhat full in recent times. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 reaches its 50th anniversary this year and a review of financial provision is indeed opportune. The Government are in close consultation with the Law Commission, which we consider the most appropriate body to carry out that review.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a practitioner in this field for 40 years. The law is hopelessly out of date: it relies entirely on finance and the discretion of judges. The judges have a fiefdom now in that, since 3 October 2017 you cannot go to the Court of Appeal if leave is refused, so their discretion is absolute. It is normally commercial judges who change the law, and arbitrators, mediators and judges need guidance. There is no use in having a divorce if the money is not sorted out; the house has to be sold and the children are caught in the conflict. Divorce practitioners like me make a fortune in arguing, because the guidelines are 50 years out of date. I know that this is not a vote winner and does not appeal to the masses, but many people in this country are touched by this and I would like an assurance that it will be included in the King’s Speech as vital business on the agenda, because responsible Governments do service to this.

My Lords, these matters will be considered fully in a forthcoming review, hopefully by the Law Commission. That commission is completing important work on surrogacy at this moment. Subject to final agreement, I hope to make a further announcement very soon indeed.

My Lords, there are models around the world that the Government could adopt. Why do they not look to those models and introduce them now?

The Government think that the Law Commission is best placed to investigate all these matters, establish what the existing law and practice is and where the problems lie, and make comparative studies of various other jurisdictions, including Australia and elsewhere, as has already been mentioned.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a practising solicitor. I share the views of many around this House in applauding the work of the Law Commission, which is engaged in a number of important areas. Will my noble and learned friend the Minister undertake to ensure that the Law Commission is properly resourced, so that it can deal with this aspect, which needs urgent reform, as quickly as possible?

My Lords, the Government will do their very best to make that the Law Commission has the resources it requires.

My Lords, given that there is clearly some scepticism about whether the Law Commission is the right body to conduct this review, could the noble and learned Lord give the House some idea of how long he expects it to take to undertake it, and at what point he thinks it will be commissioned so to do?

My Lords, I hope to make a further announcement immediately before or shortly after the Easter Recess. Matters are being finalised at the moment. Typically, Law Commission work takes place in two phases. There is an initial phase of the kind I have just outlined, where the problem is identified and comparative studies are made. That is typically followed by a consultation phase in which all stakeholders’ views are fully taken into account, which results in final recommendations and possibly draft legislation. That process will probably take at least two years.

My Lords, not only is this law antiquated—it is 50 years old—but there is an out-of-date view, which I found even among those in their twenties and thirties, that if you are cohabiting you are in some sort of arrangement called common-law marriage, which does not exist, and that the court would have powers under the Matrimonial Causes Act. So without going to the Law Commission, can my noble and learned friend the Minister please raise awareness that actually, that is not the legal position and there is an even more complex situation if you are not in a legal relationship such as a marriage or civil partnership?

My Lords, cohabitation is not envisaged as being within the review we have been talking about today. It does raise important issues and the Government keep them under review.

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord will be aware that the time taken to reach a financial settlement following a divorce is often far greater than that taken for the divorce itself. The noble and learned Lord will also be aware that children often suffer badly from family breakdown and its consequences, particularly when there is an acrimonious and protracted divorce. Legal aid is currently permitted only in limited circumstances, such as when there is evidence of domestic abuse. Will the Government reconsider the issue of legal aid for matrimonial matters, particularly where one party has insufficient resources to get the necessary advice?

The Government have commissioned a review of civil legal aid, which includes legal aid in the family courts. The point the noble Lord raises will be included in that review.

My Lords, it is well known that women suffer tremendously in divorce settlements regarding pensions and that tactics are employed to make them really lose out on the pension they would potentially be entitled to from their marriage. Will the noble and learned Lord assure us that he will examine this aspect of divorce when he looks into updating the law?

My Lords, I am sure the Law Commission will look very carefully into the points the noble Baroness raises.