I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Marriage will always be one of our most important institutions. It is vital to our functioning as a society, as we all know instinctively from our own lives and from the lives of family and friends. Rightly, then, none of us is indifferent when a lifelong commitment cannot continue, but it cannot be right for the law to create or increase conflict between divorcing couples.
I am encouraged by the many colleagues and others who have told me that the law must change to take unnecessary conflict flashpoints out of the legal process. Like me, they believe in the importance of marriage but see the destructive effects of what the law demands. People going through divorce already have to face more than enough emotional upheaval without the conflict that can be created or worsened by how the current law works.
I have reflected at length on the arguments for reform, on what people have said in response to the Government’s proposals and on the painful experiences we all know from talking to family and friends. I have heard from people who have been through divorce, from people who support divorcing couples through the legal process and from people who say they cannot afford to live apart for two years—without finally sorting out their finances—but, at the same time, cannot bring themselves to throw hurtful allegations.
The Bill responds constructively to the keenly felt experience of people’s real lives. This is a Bill for anyone who agrees that the end of a relationship should be a time of reflection, and not of manufactured conflict.
I warmly congratulate the Government and the Secretary of State on introducing this Bill. I think I have married more people than anybody else in this House, in the transitive use of the word. I was always painfully aware that, when two people come together, it may well be that, in the end, they need to part, but the idea that they would have to prove in court all sorts of reasons for why the marriage had fallen apart—relying on the common law understanding of adultery, for instance—is just nonsense and adds to the sense of pain that there could already be within a family.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks, and this Bill is by no means anti-marriage. As he rightly says, this Bill seeks to ensure that, in those unfortunate circumstances where a marriage comes to an end, it comes to an end in a way that minimises the conflict between the parties. That, in my view, has to be a sensible way forward.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point, and it is worth bearing in mind that, where children are involved, it is all the more important that we minimise the conflict. The current requirement incentivises that sense of attribution of fault, which does nothing to ensure that the relationship between the two parents can be as strong as possible, and it is the children who lose out in those circumstances.
I have thought about this with care. Obviously, to practising Christians and those of other faiths, the end of a marriage is not to be taken lightly, but I am glad the Secretary of State has accepted the proposition put by my right hon. Friend Sir Desmond Swayne that causing more conflict at the end does not help.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that in no other respects any of the protections for often the more vulnerable party to a marriage, the woman, will be affected by this measure, particularly in relation to financial arrangements and the custody of children, and that it simply removes the evidentiary requirement for a fault to be attributed to one side or the other?
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice, is right. This is about the attribution of blame and fault, and no more than that. Indeed, the protections in place for the vulnerable party remain just as they are. It is often the vulnerable party who suffers most from the need to attribute blame, because that can be difficult. In the context of domestic abuse, for example, it is striking how the likes of Women’s Aid have been very supportive of these measures because of their concern that there might be women trapped in marriages who do not want to attribute blame because they feel that may result in a further deterioration in the relationship.
The truth is that when a marriage or indeed a civil partnership has sadly broken down and is beyond repair, it stops benefiting society and the people involved. At worst, continuing in a legal relationship that is no longer functioning can be destructive to families, and the law ought to deal with the reality of marriage breakdown as constructively as possible. The current law does not do that. The requirements of the divorce process at present can often give rise to a confrontational position, even if the decision to divorce is mutual. The incentive to make allegations at the outset, to avoid otherwise waiting for two years’ separation, becomes ingrained. Divorce is traumatic, and children are inevitably affected when their parents separate—that goes without saying. I agree that marriage has long proved its worth for bringing up children, but the reality is that not all marriages last. The law should deal with that reality as sensibly as it can. When a marriage has failed, we have to take a serious look at how to reduce conflict for everyone involved, not least for children. Research shows that it is conflict between the parents that has been linked to greater social and behavioural problems among children, rather than necessarily the separation and divorce itself.
I very much welcome the proposals in this Bill. Getting rid of the fault-based approach to divorce and the conflict is a good thing, as is ensuring that people do not have to wait for two years. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and with Resolution, the organisation for family lawyers, that we also need to provide earlier advice for cohabitees who believe that common law spousal rights might exist for them? Legal advice on whether such rights exist would be beneficial. Does he agree that including provision for early advice in the Bill would be welcome?
Obviously, this Bill’s focus is on divorce for those who are married. There is a point about advice where we can have a wider debate. I will focus my remarks today on the contents of the Bill and the argument I am making about the problems with fault in the current divorce system, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support on that. Clearly, there is a debate to be had as to how we can provide support to couples, be that about reconciliation or in other contexts.
Whatever family structure children grow up in, they benefit most from stable, loving and caring relationships with parents and other close family members. We are clear that when parents have taken this difficult decision, children’s best interests are served by minimising conflict during and after the legal process, to support co-operative parenting and positive parenting relationships. This Bill is in the best interests of children whose parents are divorcing. It will therefore remove the harmful requirement for wives, husbands and civil partners in England and Wales to hurl blame or to go through the waiting limbo of separate lives. It will help them move forward more amicably and constructively. It will make a genuine difference to many thousands of children and families who each year, sadly, experience divorce.
It is 50 years since the Divorce Reform Act 1969 gave rise to the law we now have, and few of us will have known anything else. Some among us will have divorced under this law. All of us will be conscious of the bitter experience of friends and constituents who have. Even so, the existing law is not always understood. It allows divorce only on the ground that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. The court cannot hold the marriage to have done so unless it is satisfied of one or more of what the law calls “facts”. Three of the five facts—adultery, behaviour and desertion—relate to conduct of the respondent. The other facts are two years’ separation and five years’ separation, the difference being that two years’ separation requires both parties to agree to the divorce—the same applies to civil partnerships, except that the adultery fact is not available. But the fact someone chooses does not necessarily bear any resemblance to the real reasons the marriage or civil partnership broke down. Those reasons are often subtle, complex, and subjective. Who, if anyone, was responsible is a question that can be answered honestly only by the people in the marriage.
We are probably all aware of situations where a couple have sadly grown apart over time and jointly agree to divorce The current law does not allow them to do so, unless they are first financially able to live apart for two years. They might be forced to present events in a way that serves the system; minor incidents become stretched out into a pattern of behaviour to satisfy a legal threshold, which then bleeds over into how a couple approach negotiations over arrangements for children and finances; or there may be a coercive relationship, where one partner is desperate to divorce but is too scared of the consequences of setting out the evidence of their partner’s unreasonable behaviour to the court. It should be enough that the relationship has irretrievably broken down.
I do know where people are coming from when they say the requirement to prove a fact is useful, because they think that someone must be held responsible for the break-up of the marriage and that this requirement lets the court determine blame for that. The court, however, cannot do so, and the law does not require it to. Instead, making allegations or having to live apart in a marriage introduces conflict or makes it worse—this conflict can continue far beyond the legal end of the marriage and hurt children’s life chances. That is the reason for this reform.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for the careful way in which he is taking us through these proposals and for his indication of support for marriage. Will he look, perhaps in the context of this Bill, at supporting marriages before they have broken down irretrievably and providing support where couples are under pressure, in order to reduce marital breakdown by intervening earlier?
The last two words, “intervening earlier” are key. Once the point of a divorce is reached, it is likely—the evidence suggests this—that it is too late. The question is: can we provide support earlier? In all honesty, I do not believe that the Bill provides the vehicle to address that point, because if we try to provide that support in the context of the divorce itself, we will be too late. Clearly however there is an argument—one that I suspect is for the next spending review—as to what assistance can be provided to couples at an earlier stage in the process. I completely understand where my hon. Friend is coming from and I very much agree that the point is about earlier intervention, but where someone is going through the divorce process, making that process more difficult and confrontation is counterproductive.
Does the Secretary of State understand the circumstances where a resident parent turns children against the non-resident parent where no abuse whatsoever is involved? That causes estrangement for the child, often for many, many years. Is it not time that we found a legal framework—early intervention is important in this respect—to tackle this problem? I have only recently become involved in this campaign on parental alienation, and I was shocked that hundreds if not thousands of parents are estranged from their children because the resident parent seeks to manipulate the child against a non-resident parent for no reason whatsoever.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention on a matter that I suspect all of us have had experience of as constituency Members of Parliament as well as citizens. These circumstances are hugely difficult. To some extent, the existing divorce law can somewhat encourage that behaviour, because of the need to attribute blame, but he is right to suggest that this is a wider issue, one that is hard to address in the context of divorce. He is right to highlight the difficulties that can exist and how parents can be alienated from their children in what are difficult circumstances.
When I became Justice Secretary last year, I was able to take a deeper look at the issue of divorce. What became clear to me was that making allegations does not serve any public interest. It needlessly rakes up the past to justify the legal ending of a relationship that is no longer a beneficial and functioning one. At worst, these allegations can pit one parent against the other. I remain deeply concerned that what the existing law requires can be especially damaging for children.
The law on divorce and dissolution is out of step with the constructive approach that family law takes in other areas and that practitioners take every day. It is time to change that. Resolution is the lead organisation representing family lawyers who subscribe to a non-confrontational approach. Resolution’s chair, Margaret Heathcote, has said that
“because of our outdated divorce laws” practitioners have effectively been working
“with one arm tied behind their backs.”
The Bill will change that.
At the beginning of my speech, I spoke about the confrontational position that the law sets up and about its harmful impact on children. That confrontational position undermines not only good co-parenting but any prospect of reconciliation. I understand concerns about people being divorced against their will. The reality is that under the existing law the court can refuse a divorce only if a legal requirement is not met, and never simply because one party wants to stay married. Only about 2% of respondents say that they want to contest the divorce. Hardly anyone continues contesting all the way to a court hearing. Marriages are not saved at all by the ability of a spouse to contest the divorce.
When I got married, as a Catholic I did not think the option of divorce was open to us. I genuinely thought that under all circumstances our marriage would be forever; my wife decided otherwise. That was a very emotional time. Does my right hon. Friend expect that when the change comes in some people will find it easier to divorce and that there be a spike in the divorce figures? A period of reflection sometimes gives people the opportunity to save their marriage, and that opportunity might be missed under the proposed changes.
I agree with my hon. Friend about a period of reflection. In fact, the Bill will ensure that there is a longer minimum period of reflection for people in a marriage to consider whether reconciliation is the right course. The evidence suggests that by the time things get to that stage, reconciliation happens very rarely, but we are extending that period, so it is not really about making divorce easier but about making it less confrontational.
On my hon. Friend’s point about whether we anticipate a spike in divorces, there is international evidence as to what is likely to happen following such a reform. I shall be open with my hon. Friend: there will be people who are currently waiting for two or five years for a divorce, and that divorce will be brought forward, so the likelihood is that there will be an increase because of that waiting list. However, the international evidence suggests that once that initial spike has been dealt with, in a steady state the divorce rate is unlikely to increase; it is likely to remain much the same. I hope it is clear to my hon. Friend that although we would anticipate that some divorces will be brought forward, the change is unlikely to increase the divorce rate in a steady state.
Let me turn briefly to the measures in the Bill: it does not create a new process, but instead retains the framework of the existing law and removes those aspects that are considered to cause conflict. The Bill therefore retains the two stages of divorce and dissolution orders. 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.
The reform will retain irretrievable breakdown as the sole legal ground for divorce and dissolution. It will replace the current requirement to evidence irretrievable breakdown through a conduct or separation fact with a statement of irretrievable breakdown of the marriage or civil partnership. For the first time, couples will have the option to make this a joint statement, to reflect some couples’ mutual decision to divorce. It will remove the possibility of contesting the decision to end the legal relationship, as a statement of irretrievable breakdown will be conclusive evidence to the court that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down.
The reform will introduce a new minimum period of 20 weeks from the start of proceedings to the point at which the applicant—or applicants jointly—can confirm to the court that a conditional order may be made. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend Eddie Hughes some reassurance about that moment of reflection. Our proposal will make the court process towards a conditional order less rushed and give couples further time to consider the implications of the divorce. Between 2011 and 2018, around two thirds of cases reached conditional order in less than our proposed 20-week minimum period. That included approximately one in 10 cases within eight weeks, and four in 10 cases between nine and 16 weeks. The Bill also modernises language such as “decree nisi” and “decree absolute”, to bring terms in line with the more modern terms used in civil partnership law.
The reforms I have set out will deliver a system of divorce that is fit for the 21st century. It is time to end the blame game. The system we have now does not support the reality of marriage and civil partnership breakdown. It has been criticised as a system that
“is, and always has been, a sham”.
Those are the words of Sir Paul Coleridge, former family judge and chair of the Marriage Foundation, who, like all of us, believes strongly in marriage but sees that by reforming the law to remove from it unnecessary requirements that can fuel conflict, we will not undermine marriage and will support people to look to the future as they go through very difficult times. For that reason, I commend the Bill to the House.
I welcome the Bill. Labour supports the introduction of a no-fault divorce procedure, which we committed to in our 2017 general election manifesto, and we are pleased that the Government have acted, especially in the light of the troubling case of Owens v. Owens. We will therefore vote to support the Bill if a vote is called at this stage. We will use our time in Committee to amend the Bill, if need be, to ensure that it is the best law possible for those who are already going through a difficult time in their lives.
The existing procedure and law managing divorce and the dissolution of civil partnerships is not fit for purpose and is in clear need of updating. A fundamental problem with the existing law, which is set out for divorcing couples in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and for the dissolution of civil partnerships in the Civil Partnership Act 2004, is that it requires people who seek a divorce to prove that the marriage has broken down, either by establishing fault on the part of one partner, or by showing that the couple have lived separate lives for a number of years. In reality, for those who cannot afford to live in two separate households for years in order to prove that their marriage has broken down, the only option currently available is to establish fault on the part of their partner. That is one way in which the current divorce law discriminates against women, particularly those on a low income, by reducing the options available to them to a fault-based divorce.
Establishing of one of the three faults—adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion—can be difficult, and often heightens tensions at an already stressful time. We know the hurt that such heightened tension can all too often cause. There are widespread concerns about the increased risk of domestic violence faced by women who go through this fractious process. Surveys of people who have gone through the divorce procedure show that in excess of one in four people who go through a divorce have cited a fault that is not in fact true, simply because it is their only way to secure a divorce. This is plainly an unacceptable state of affairs, and it is right that the Government are now acting to address it.
A conflictual process is deeply damaging to children’s life chances. Children will of course be better served by parents who co-operate, and if their parents have a constructive relationship. The law is a real barrier to that.
I reiterate the point I made earlier to the Secretary of State, who rightly talked about the impact on children of an acrimonious divorce. We need to protect children from the risk of abuse—everybody would accept that—but if a resident parent turns a child against a non-resident parent, that can cause massive long-term damage to that child. The current legal framework does nothing satisfactory to tackle that particular problem. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that now is the time to look again at what can be done differently in respect of the whole question of alienation and the impact on children?
There are very often issues with how the family courts go about these custody matters. I get lots of cases like this, as I am sure my hon. Friend does. It is an area that needs to be looked at. Equally, some lawyers—not all—can exacerbate the situation in the way they handle the case. I get lots of complaints about family courts, particularly with regard to who is right and who is wrong, and there is a lot of antagonism. As my hon. Friend Mr Lewis said, this can be very damaging to children.
That is why we are very supportive of mediation in family cases in general, and why we have made announcements in relation to legal aid and early family law advice. I hear my hon. Friend’s point about the role of solicitors not always being helpful, but there can also be problems when people end up being advocates for themselves.
The need to apportion blame and ratchet up the acrimony is one of the main reasons that so many of us want to see an end to this fault-based law—not least because of the impact on children. For example, the present divorce ground of unreasonable behaviour requires allegations that are hardly ever challenged and can sometimes be exaggerated by one spouse against the other, which can exacerbate tensions between them. It also makes it more difficult to agree arrangements for children. Indeed, one of the most urgent reasons for these reforms is to alleviate the harm caused to children, including to their mental health, by acrimonious separations. For a child of a divorcing couple, the divorce can be one of the most difficult times in their life. As the Secretary of State has indicated, the introduction of a no-fault procedure should mean that the whole process can be quicker and less stressful for them. At an emotionally traumatic time, such as a divorce or separation, parents want and need support in order to put the best interests of their children first.
This change to the law has public support and the support of family law experts. Margaret Heathcote— the chair of Resolution, which represents more than 6,000 family law practitioners and is a strong supporter of this change—said:
“Every day, our members are helping people through separation, taking a constructive, non-confrontational approach in line with our code of practice. However, because of our outdated divorce laws, they’ve been working with one arm tied behind their backs.”
In fact, the Secretary of State quoted her himself.
Professor Liz Trinder, who led the Nuffield Foundation’s 2017 research into divorce law, is also supportive of these reforms, saying that
“making people produce a ‘reason’ to obtain their divorce—as they are currently required to do—does not save marriages and instead just creates a meaningless charade that can create conflict, confusion and unfairness.”
And Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society, said:
“Making couples attribute fault…can escalate the differences between them in an already charged situation.”
The recent case of Owens v. Owens highlighted a particularly iniquitous aspect of our existing divorce laws: the possibility for one party to attempt to refuse a divorce by defending it.
Does the hon. Gentleman think this change will in any way lessen the seriousness of the marriage contract? Will people entering into it feel that they can do so more lightly because, from a purely contractual point of view, escaping from it is made easier by this legislation?
I know that marriage is technically a contract, but it seems strange to think of it that way when it is such a personal and emotional thing. I do not believe that this change in the law, which is welcome, will lead to an overall increase in the number of divorces in the long run. However, I do think that it will reduce the unnecessary tension, conflict, distress and damage to children in those divorces, which would take place in any event.
In the case of Owens v. Owens, the family court judge refused to grant a divorce to Mrs Owens, who made the application for a divorce in 2015, despite finding that the marriage had in fact broken down. This was because she failed to prove, as required in the 1973 Act, that her husband’s behaviour was such that she could not reasonably be expected to live with him. Mrs Owens’s appeal was dismissed at both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, leaving her unable to divorce her husband until 2020—a clearly unacceptable case. The judges who heard the case at both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court expressed their dissatisfaction with the existing law, with Sir James Munby, the then president of the family division, suggesting that divorce law was based on a “lack of intellectual honesty”, and Lady Hale concluding that it was for Parliament to make any changes to the law. It is therefore right that Parliament is now able to take up this issue and make the reforms necessary to ensure that no one has to go through what Mrs Owens experienced in this case.
The new divorce laws that we are considering today should aim to secure a number of desirable outcomes. They should ensure that people can separate as amicably as possible, keeping conflict to a minimum, so that the chances of reaching agreement are maximised and the risk of domestic abuse is as low as possible. Where there are children, their interests must be paramount, and a safe, secure and sustainable outcome for them should be promoted wherever possible. Unlike the existing system, these new divorce laws should not discriminate against women, especially those on low incomes. The new divorce and dissolution laws must also protect vulnerable and marginalised groups throughout the divorce process. In particular, they must not weaken the hard-won rights of LGBT people.
One issue that has been raised by charities working to support victims of domestic abuse is that the Bill as drafted does not remove the bar on petitioning for a divorce in the first year of a marriage. This can leave women who are suffering domestic abuse trapped in the abusive marriage during that year. Will the Secretary of State address that issue during the passage of the Bill, and will he tell us whether he has met Women’s Aid and other charities to discuss these concerns?
Since 2013, legal aid for divorce cases in England and Wales has been withdrawn by the Government—in most cases as part of a wider attack on access to justice that has had a very detrimental impact on family law cases. Groups including Citizens Advice have highlighted how legal aid cuts add to strain on divorcees, and more widely it is lower income people and those with children who are more likely to be litigating in person than any other group. Resolution, which was mentioned earlier, has previously stated that providing legal aid for a single, initial meeting with a lawyer would provide separating couples with clear “signposts” about their legal options and encourage more people to use mediation as an alternative to courtroom confrontation.
Even with the welcome changes contained in the Bill, divorce will still be an often confusing legal process. There is a clear public interest in people being supported to achieve amicable resolutions to financial questions and arrangements for the care of children following a separation. Will the Government therefore commit to reintroducing legal aid for early legal advice for couples going through the divorce procedure?
In conclusion, bringing our divorce laws into the 21st century can form an essential part of the efforts to protect women from domestic abuse, limit the damaging impacts that fractious separations can have on children and encourage amicable separations wherever possible. For those reasons, I am pleased to support these overdue reforms.
I rise to support this proposed new legislation from the Government. It is a long overdue reform, and I certainly commend it.
Marriage is a very serious, lifelong commitment, and we all enter into it in that spirit. It is very clear that it is the best outcome for a stable family life, and, indeed, delivers the best outcome for children.
But we live in the real world, and we know that every marriage has its ups and downs. Although it is not a matter for this Bill, many have talked about the need to give advice, but advice should be given before entering into marriage, not as it draws to a close. We all had relationship education at school, but, when it comes to marriage, what does that really mean in terms of a relationship, of finance and sharing the benefits and the burdens of our shared working lives, and of what we might or might not inherit? What does it mean for children? Have the couple discussed whether they want children? Is the lady going into this arrangement expecting that that is the norm while the gentleman does not have the same concept at all? Increasingly, marriages are not all about having children. Outside this Bill, we ought to look at that. If we do so, we will have better and happier couples who will stay married longer.
Some marriages, clearly, do not weather the storm. People change. We cannot deny that; we cannot expect people always to be the same. Events impact hugely on people’s lives. The impacts on people’s lives are many and varied as we travel more and as a result of the internet. When a marriage does irretrievably break down, the clear focus must be on good post-divorce relationships. That is not just about the children, although they are absolutely key; it is also about the relationship between the two people who were married. There should be a focus on mutual support for the children of the marriage. At this point, I should make it clear that we are not just talking about biological children of that marriage. Marriages today are quite complex, and there will often be a number of stepchildren and others to be taken into account.
Blame is not helpful. It is destructive and it impacts mental health. As we have heard, it can place children in very unpleasant situations where they are asked or expected to take the side of one partner or the other, or almost emotionally bullied into doing so. In some cases, children are even led to believe that the breakdown of the marriage is their fault. That cannot be right in today’s society. This Bill is absolutely a step in the right direction. It removes blame and it removes fault.
There is, however, more to do. I understand the Government’s caution in tackling the causes that need to be proved for divorce, but the financial arrangements on separation and divorce and for children do not work and must be readdressed in the context of the modern world, not the world as it used to be. The world is no longer about two people getting married and staying together for their lifetimes. It is not always about having biological children. Indeed, as I said, it is not always about having children at all.
When looking at finances and at the arrangements for children, the problem is that the courts are not well guided, because the original rules and regulations were set for a time that no longer exists and need to be reviewed. We have a common law system. We have a background of evidence that, to some extent, has evolved to help these newly changed situations.
Unless there is a readjusted start point, however, gaming comes in, whether it is about arguments about finance or about children. For many people, this creates a very unfair situation that cannot lead to what, for me, are the key objectives—good relationships between the parting parents and with the children. Indeed, the antiquated nature of the current legislation actually prevents marriages. Many will say, “Well done, Government, because at least we now understand that if things do not work out, there is a non-blaming way of parting ways.” We had not dealt with the acrimony and blame that goes with financial settlements and settlements for children.
The concept of a pre-nup is a great start, but the problem is that they create more discord between couples before they are married than is absolutely necessary. They can create great bitterness. There are still huge questions about whether they are legally binding. It might not be for this Bill, but we have to look at and consult on those matters again.
Not all marriages are about children. There may be no children produced, but there will be children in the marriage. Often there will be a mixture of biological children, stepchildren and step-grandchildren. Under the current system, the interests of all those parties and their relationships are not properly taken into account. As adults, we have to grow up and live with the consequences of the decisions we make, but for children who have built very close relationships with stepchildren or grandparents these situations can be devastating. All this really needs to be thought through again.
Too often, the parent who has the children has the opportunity to game the system and cast aspersions on the behaviour of the absent parent of such a vicious nature that the court is left with little option but to accept that the risk is too great, and, as a consequence, that the individual making the accusations must be believed. This system does not work. It is often abused for financial advantage, it having nothing to do with the children. I strongly recommend that we look at this again and do the job better.
I support the Opposition’s request that legal aid be brought back into this area, because we have clogged up the courts with cases that are not going to deliver a good outcome for anybody. The court system is completely stymied because the judge finds himself or herself having to give advice to the litigants in person. That is not good for children, for parents or for anyone involved with the family in its broadest terms.
The issue of finances becomes a terrible wrangle about who is entitled to what. We start with the principal assumption of a 50:50 split. In the old days, when often one party worked and the other looked after the children, it was absolutely fair that the work involved in creating, bringing up and nurturing the family was valued. That would be a sensible starting point. Increasingly, though, both parties work, and both bring very different financial contributions to the marriage. We need to look again at how we assess the right starting point. We then need to assess what criteria will enable us to move away from that starting point.
The most important thing is the needs of the children. That should be the first thing taken into account. Secondly, there is the need for each of the spouses to make sure that they are still able to live well. However, it is unrealistic, for a number of reasons, for anyone to go into a marriage and assume that when it breaks up there is necessarily an entitlement to live in the same style as they did when they were married. Financially—usually—it is not affordable. While marriage is for life, increasingly individuals are marrying more than once, more than twice—indeed, three times—and therefore to make financial provision that assumes that that individual will be single for the rest of their life simply is not realistic.
We need a much more realistic approach to marriage, and to the financial settlement. We need to recognise that people will often marry more than once—and that is not a criticism; it is actually a good thing, because marriage, as we know, is a very good environment in which to bring up children. If we can make marriages happy, if they can deliver long term, and if there can be many long-term happy marriages, that is not something to eschew, but something to welcome.
This reform is very welcome, but the reality of how people marry—the circumstances in which they marry and the circumstances around children—has changed so fundamentally that the law on financial settlements and on arrangements for the children must be fundamentally reviewed. Nevertheless, this is definitely a good start in the right direction, and I commend the Minister and the Government for introducing this Bill, which I will support.
It is very refreshing to see such widespread consensus; I take the fact that the Chamber is relatively empty this afternoon as a sign that we all know that the Bill is a very welcome step forward, and that there is widespread consensus. As has been said, the Bill makes our legal practices around divorce fit for the 21st century, and the Liberal Democrats very much welcome the changes.
Divorce can be traumatising and affect whole families for years after the event. Up until now, the legal process by which divorce happens has further exacerbated that trauma, dragging out the process and forcing couples into conflict to assign legal blame. Currently, it is impossible to seek a no-fault divorce unless the couple have been separated for at least two years. To file for divorce more quickly than that, couples must claim “unreasonable behaviour” or “adultery”.
The impacts of such a system are devastating, especially for children. Divorce and family breakdown are considered an adverse childhood experience that has lasting impacts on the children. Recently, we have talked about adverse childhood experiences around knife crime, the penal system and policing. I hope and wish, because I am a member of the all-party group for the prevention of adverse childhood experiences, that the whole approach—the trauma and fault approach—to a lot of services will be much better and more widely understood, and that all 650 MPs in this country will understand what trauma and fault mean. I encourage all hon. Members to attend at least some meetings of our all-party group. Family separation is an adverse childhood experience.
We are all very concerned about the impact on children. The reality of the damage of divorce is manifest, not just in the process, which we are discussing, but primarily in the separation of parents and the subsequent years in which children live torn between them. Does the hon. Lady agree that whenever divorce is granted, there must be greater focus on the children of the break-up?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Throughout the years, we have understood how important it is that we take children seriously and focus a lot on their mental health and wellbeing. I totally agree.
Living through adverse childhood experiences hugely influences the likelihood that a child will end up serving time in our criminal justice system, have poor mental and physical health, and find it very difficult to build stable, loving relationships. Our divorce legislation must take that into account and be trauma-informed.
People often come to the decision to divorce at the most chaotic times of their and their families’ lives. We must have a system that tries to restore order—not fuel further chaos—and we must absolutely support children throughout that process.
The new legislation, which would allow couples to file for no-fault divorce and complete the process in six months, would leave space for families to continue to function in very difficult circumstances. It would encourage couples to be mindful of their marriage and the impact of divorce, while not pushing them towards further conflict.
Each year, over 100,000 couples get divorced in England and Wales. In the years that have passed since the most recent significant family legislation, over 1.7 million people have assigned blame in the divorce process. Needless to say, this Bill is long overdue.
There is much more that can be done to bring our marriage laws into the 21st century, as Anne Marie Morris said. We must recognise that marriage and civil partnerships are not for everyone, and that young people who do get married are doing so later and later. Our legal system needs to catch up with society, in which millions of couples choose to live together without making a formal commitment. The Law Commission suggests granting essential but limited legal rights to couples who have lived together for at least three years. Such legislation would complement the new divorce, dissolution and separation laws, and I urge the Minister to take another look at that proposal.
Family law defines millions of lives, young and old. We have an obligation to ensure that the law is up to date and empowers people, instead of holding them back. Changing the current legislation to focus on reconciliation, as opposed to conflict, is a very positive first step in the process, but there is more to be done.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This is a sensitive subject and I hope to approach it in that way. Divorce can never be easy—not for the parties, nor for the others involved, such as children or the wider family. People who marry do so in the hope that their relationship will be long lasting, but when relationships do break down, often, the impact is devastating for many involved. I will never forget a grandmother coming to see me to make a will—I practised for many years as a solicitor in a community law firm, although never as a family law specialist. She broke down in tears as she told me that, following her son’s divorce, she had lost all contact with her grandchildren for years.
However, when couples do stay together and weather the inevitable storms of marriage, the stability that that engenders benefits not just the parties, but their children. Indeed, it is increasingly acknowledged that, even where there is an argumentative marriage—as many are—where parents stick together, the stability benefits the children. Indeed, the Lord Chancellor talked about stability benefiting children. The wider community and society benefit, too. Sadly, the UK has one of the highest levels of family breakdown in the developed world, with profound consequences for children’s mental health, housing pressures, homelessness, addiction, loneliness in old age, and much more. So, in order to promote stability, Government is justified, and has an interest, in helping couples stay together and in counteracting wherever possible the consequences of the high level of relationship breakdown in this country.
I fully support what the hon. Lady has put forward. I talked to her beforehand about this subject —indeed, we have talked about it on many occasions—and she and I agree that we see divorce as bad for children. Does she agree that this might minimise some forms of conflict in the short term, but that the long-term negative impact of divorce on children’s development and adult wellbeing will become more prevalent as divorce increases? Does she see in her constituency office, as I see in mine, the side effects of divorce and the impact on children?
I do, very much, in many cases. It is that break-up that causes so much hurt. Very often it is not so much the conflict; in fact, a lot of emerging research shows that the shock of marriage break-up can be greater for children when there has not been conflict in the parents’ relationship than when there has been.
I accept that not every marriage can be maintained and that it is sometimes better for one to end. I am also very much aware that many single and separated parents do a brilliant job. However, this Bill not only makes it easier to leave a marriage, but fails to take the opportunity properly to promote reconciliation where that may be possible. It fails to instigate better mediation procedures. At present, mediation procedures do not work well, according to family law practitioners. They need to be much more wisely applied at a more timely point during the legal process. If need be, I shall say more about this at a later stage of the Bill’s progress. I sincerely hope that an amendment will be tabled to reflect that need.
As ever, my hon. Friend is making a thoughtful and compassionate contribution to the debate. I agree with the tenets of the Bill and I slightly disagree with some aspects of her speech. We need to take confrontation out of the break-up process. I certainly agree with her that we need to signpost people towards relationship counselling services. In effect, as part of the trade-off in allowing a more simple, streamlined divorce process, we need to support those who wish to make a success of such counselling.
I want to make a quick intervention because the hon. Lady mentioned the words “family relationships”. When the Conservative party came to power, one of the policies it pursued at that time—I supported this by the way—was to fix broken Britain. In relation to striking at the institution of marriage, does she feel that this divorce Bill, as it is coming forward, fixes broken Britain, or does it make it worse?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting intervention because the phrase “broken Britain” came from a report by the Centre for Social Justice that was produced a decade or so ago. Sadly, relationship breakdown is even greater now than it was then. I do not believe that successive Governments have put in place policies and procedures to help to strengthen relationships, and this Bill will not do so either. In fact, sadly, I believe it will make divorce easier. Why do I say that? Simply because it will allow one party to walk away from the most important commitment they are likely to have made in their lifetime, without giving any reason at all and without their spouse being able meaningfully to object to their decision to do so. The removal of fault sends out a signal—I am particularly concerned about the signals sent out by the Bill to young people—that marriage can be unilaterally exited, on notice, by one party, with little if any recourse available to the party who has been left. I fear it signals that marriage need no longer be entered into with the intention of its being a lifelong commitment, as it is today—perhaps it will be signalled more as a time-limited arrangement that can be ended at will. Indeed, it is interesting that, in my law firm, I am now hearing the phrase “My current partner” coming into usage.
As I say, the removal of fault, without any opportunity to challenge, means that some who are genuinely wronged—it may be only a tiny number, as the Secretary of State has mentioned—cannot put anything on record on what they feel about the reasons stated for the divorce. The Bill simply says that a court must make a divorce order merely on the bald statement by one party that a marriage has broken down irretrievably.
I thank the hon. Lady for taking a further intervention and you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for letting me intervene. Does she accept this concern—I believe it is her concern as well? This change to the divorce law proposes irretrievable breakdown as a sole ground for divorce, but what is actually proposed is unilateral, no-reason divorce. That is what it is about.
That is exactly the point I want to make. I am concerned that, if marriage can be seen as so easily exited, more and more young people will think, “Why bother entering into it at all?” Marriage rates may well, and likely will, further decline.
The hon. Lady has been incredibly generous with her time. She, like I, views marriage through the prism of our faith, but I hope that she recognises that not everyone who engages in marriage sees it that way. They do not see it as a covenant from God. They do not see it in the same way she and I do. May I ask her to reflect on why, where a marriage has broken down, the process should be elongated and why somebody should feel trapped in a marriage in which they are no longer invested? Would she also give some thought to the notion that, when somebody has to give a reason over and above irretrievable breakdown, it leads to the conflict she is seeking to avoid?
The hon. Gentleman, whom I deeply respect, has made a number of points and I will address particularly the point about conflict in a moment. However, may I first respond to the point about where a marriage may have—so-called—irretrievably broken down?
Despite what the Secretary of State said, I think these proposals will do even less than current procedures to help to promote dialogue and potentially therefore reconciliation. Currently, each year, approximately 10,000 divorces are started and then dropped. Many couples do give their marriage another chance. However, these proposals—in effect, promoting unilateral divorce on demand simply by serving a notice on the other person that the marriage has broken down, without having to give any reason at all and without the spouse being able to contest this should they want to—will, I believe, inhibit the dialogue that could promote reconciliation in some cases.
The hon. Lady is very generous and we do have the luxury of a proper debate. Does she not accept that a marriage takes two and the tragedy is always when one side feels something has irretrievably broken down? It is a tragedy, but it is at the heart of why it is difficult to keep something going when one side clearly does not feel they can keep it going. For that reason, this change in the law is very welcome.
I note what the hon. Lady says, but I am saying that we should give more support to the opportunity for dialogue and potential reconciliation—for example, through better mediation services than we currently have.
Whether we view marriage through the prism of faith or simply as an arrangement in which people come together because they wish to be together, does the hon. Lady agree that, with no-fault divorce, the process by which a couple come to the conclusion that the marriage has irrevocably broken down, has been made so much easier that the full extent of the considerations that ought to be taken before the marriage is broken up will not have been taken? That is why the Bill is flawed.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is that thoughtfulness that I am seeking to preserve. There is something also about the thoughtfulness that goes into preparing for the marriage ceremony, including—to pick up the point made by Gavin Robinson about not all marriages being religious—secular ones. There is a thoughtfulness about that ceremony and the public commitment it entails, with the support of friends and relatives who witness it, all of which helps to strengthen the relationship and often enables people to weather the inevitable storms. I am concerned that the thoughtfulness the Bill will extract through the ending of a marriage will denude the necessity, importance or encouragement of the thoughtfulness at the start of and during the relationship.
It is deeply worrying, because at the end of the day, one of the most precious things in life that many if not most of us want is the fulfilment of a loving, enduring relationship. Is the fact that people construct a reason for applying for divorce, as the Minister mentioned, a good enough argument for abandoning altogether the requirement and the thought that has to be put into it?
I am deeply concerned that marriage rates are likely to decline further. Interestingly, that is the conclusion of research drawn on by the authors of “Finding Fault”—the paper the Government rely on heavily in promoting the Bill. The authors of “Finding Fault” choose to ignore that conclusion and instead rely on Professor Justin Wolfers’ study, which cites a 2004 piece of research on other jurisdictions where no-fault divorce has been introduced. They do not quote it, but I shall. The research showed that
“the marriage rate declined by about 3 to 4 percent following the adoption of unilateral divorce laws.”
The likelihood of remarriage is also affected by such laws; according to the research,
“unilateral divorce led remarriage rates of divorcees to decline by around one-third to one-half.”
I intervene to back up the hon. Lady’s argument. To make marriage a relationship that one can exit unilaterally simply by saying that one wants out will fundamentally change its nature and undermine the ability of marriage to bring stability to the lives of adults and children. Does she agree that the ethic of marriage embodied in the Bill prioritises individual freedom and liberty, rather than encouraging, as it should, self-giving, sacrifice and commitment?
The hon. Gentleman makes a profound point. Without going too far into philosophy and theology, I will say there is something to be gained from the giving as well as the receiving within a marriage. It is difficult to understand why the Government are proposing legislation that will make the fulfilment that can be obtained from that harder to achieve. It is already hard enough for so many young people, with few role models of sustained relationships to look at and with media misconceptions about relationships so prevalent today.
What is truly tragic is that it is the poorest in our society who are not now marrying in great numbers and who are the least resilient when relationships break down. Marriage brings stability. Just one in 11 married couples split before a child’s fifth birthday, compared with one in three unmarried couples. As the Minister says, children benefit from stability. The well-off are still marrying and still benefiting. That is not social justice. Sadly, as the Minister acknowledged, many families will be affected by an immediate increase in divorce rates that even proponents of the Bill accept will inevitably follow the Bill’s passage, as those who currently wait for two or five years opt for a quickie divorce instead. I understand that it could take a decade for the spike to dissipate to our normal rates of divorce—already the highest in Europe—and the heaviest effect will be felt by the children involved.
It is especially concerning that the Government are ignoring the result of their own public consultation on the matter. Of those who responded, 80% did not agree with the proposal to replace the five current grounds for divorce with a six-month notification process; a mere 17% were in favour of the proposals in the Bill. No less than 83% wanted the Government to retain the individual’s right to contest a divorce; only 15% said that that right should be removed. What reason did the Government give for ignoring those responses? It was that the respondents who objected to the proposals did so as a result of a campaign to raise public awareness about the proposals. That is laughable—not just laughable, but deeply worrying. Why should the public bother responding to consultations if they are ignored in this way? Are we in this place not already being ridiculed for ignoring the public’s view on another grave matter?
The tragedy is that the premise on which the Bill is founded—reducing conflict—is a false one. Solicitors specialising in family law tell me that no-fault divorce is no silver bullet to reduce family conflict and acrimony. They say the real source of contention between spouses and ex-spouses is finance and the division of assets. The Bill will do nothing to change that. Indeed, the Government are missing an opportunity in the Bill to tackle some grave injustices in that regard, while creating others. One solicitor who has specialised in family law day in, day out for 25 years says of the Bill:
“It will in my view lead to more not less divorce”
The solicitor continues:
“I have dealt with a lot of cases these last few years where people have done the divorce themselves” and says the Government are
“trying to make it easier to exclude lawyers—but” the divorcing couples
“have not sorted out the finances correctly, either by not getting a clean break order (therefore the former spouse can still make a claim years after the divorce) or not sorting finances at all, as a dominant party (usually man) puts pressure on the other to do nothing—often causing that other to be in financial hardship.”
He goes on:
“The issue is and always has been finance in divorce, not the divorce process. No-fault divorce will not solve anything in my view. Instead they should look at ways to provide financial equality in the process of sorting divorce and finances, as it is still often one party who is more able to pay for good legal support. The Financial Services order is supposed to allow the other to apply to court forcing the financially stronger to fund both lawyers but in reality the process is…difficult…restricted and doesn’t work.”
It seems the Government have missed the opportunity to address that problem, too.
Sadly, despite the Minister’s words, the proposals will do even less than the current procedures to promote dialogue and potential reconciliation. As I approach the end of my speech—as I said, it is a luxury to be able to speak at the desired length and to take as many interventions as people wish to make—I will quote from the explanatory notes on the Bill. They say:
“The Government’s policy intention behind the reformed law is that the decision to divorce should be a considered one, and that separating couples should not be 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.”
Is the hon. Lady aware of a story in the press a month or so ago about a father and mother who were divorcing, and when it came to deciding who would have responsibility for the children, neither parent wanted it? Is she as dismayed as I was that neither the father of the children nor their mother wanted anything to do with them? Does that not disappoint her? It disappoints me.
That is heartrending. Words fail me.
Returning to the more prosaic words of the explanatory notes, I remind colleagues of the statements that
“the decision to divorce should be a considered one”, and that
“couples should not be 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.”
In my view, this Bill fails on every one of those counts. As I have explained, it will make divorce not a more considered decision but a less considered one, with no reason needing to be explained. It will do nothing to reduce the ongoing conflict that arises from financial disputes. It will increase divorce rates and reduce marriage rates.
The very recent Centre for Social Justice report on families leads me to the inevitable conclusion that it will not serve the state’s interests and that it will lead to poorer outcomes for children. Time prohibits me from quoting much of the excellent and well-evidenced research in the report, but I will simply quote from it as follows. It concludes:
“Marriage leads to better life outcomes for children. Marriage promotes stability. Children of married parents are more likely to achieve at school, have better mental health, less likely to use drink and drugs and less likely to get involved in offending behaviour.”
As I said at the outset, there are always exceptions to every such statement, and I repeat that many single and separated parents do an excellent job. Having said that, however, divorce can be deeply hurtful and costly for those involved, for their children and for wider society. It is already at epidemic levels. The Bill will make it worse. The Government should be actively seeking to strengthen family relationships, not weaken them.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce. She made a heartfelt speech. I know that this is a matter on which she feels very strongly. It is an issue to which I myself have given considerable thought. It is sensitive and important, particularly for those who have a faith and regard marriage as a sacrament as well as a legal contract.
I look at this issue from the point of view of someone who happens to be a practising Anglican, as someone who has for 25 or 30 years been a practising lawyer—not predominantly in the field of family law, although I did practise family law to some degree in my earlier days—as someone who served as a councillor in a local authority, and as someone who has the honour of serving as Chair of the Justice Committee. I have had the chance to see the issue from a number of points of view and I have come to a different conclusion to my hon. Friend. I do not say that with any disrespect for the strength or genuineness of her feeling; I am just persuaded, on balance, that the Secretary of State is right and that the evidence points quite clearly to this being an appropriate and necessary reform.
As Chair of the Justice Committee, I have had the opportunity to engage with leading members of the judiciary, particularly, in this context, with those of the family division. It is the overwhelming view of family practitioners, including solicitors, barristers and senior judges, that the current arrangements, which require fault to be used as a proof of irretrievable breakdown, do not work satisfactorily and do not achieve what is ultimately the necessary objective of enabling people whose marriage has sadly broken down irretrievably—I suspect that none of us want that to happen when we embark on a marriage, but it does happen in some cases—to leave their marriage with a measure of dignity and to do so in a way that enables the important issue of financial fairness to be resolved, and, in the case of children, to enable civilised and caring arrangements to be made for them and their children. That, ultimately, must be the chief and principal objective.
My hon. Friend gets to the heart of the matter: the fault aspect. What persuades me is that the requirement to assign fault can itself be a polluting element within the divorce or separation process. It may actually make what could be a more amicable separation more poisonous and more difficult when it comes to discussing other matters such as finance.
I agree and that was certainly my experience as a lawyer. That is the experience of the majority of practitioners and the majority of the judiciary to whom I have spoken. When I started my practise at the Bar, the Divorce Reform Act 1969 was comparatively recent and the law was developing. There was an issue then and it has remained a constant. There is an underlying risk of tension and antagonism in the course of family proceedings, which spill on from the divorce itself into the proceedings thereafter, which, for the future, are very often much more important. I very much take on board the point my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton makes about the value to society of stable marriages—indeed, the value to society of stable relationships of any kind. If I thought that the Bill would seriously harm that, I would take a different view towards it, but I do not think that and the evidence does not suggest that that is the case either.
I strongly support the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s argument and I strongly support the Bill. I am very sorry I was not here for the earlier speeches. All the representations I have received from the legal profession support the Bill. I was a practising solicitor, but I did not do matrimonial law. My daughter does and she strongly supports the Bill. I think it is overdue and I will be strongly supporting it today.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have to say that from my own limited experience and from speaking to those who continue to practise, no area of law is perhaps more sensitive or more emotionally draining—not just for the parties, but for the practitioners who seek to advise them and the judiciary who sit on these cases—than family work. It is inevitably stressful and we ought to have a system that reduces stress, rather than makes it greater.
The evidence from other comparators also shows that the Bill is an advantage to the overall social objective and that some concerns are not justified. It is suggested that the Bill imports into law a concept of unilateral no-fault divorce. That is not strictly correct. It is currently the case that after two years of separation with consent or five years without consent, divorce can be granted without any allegation of conduct. The truth is, as I will refer to later and as Sir Paul Coleridge, the chairman of the Marriage Foundation and a former High Court judge of the family division himself observed, that that does not keep up to date with the way people now change and move on with their lives. It certainly does not reflect my experience, and the experience of most people, that the divorce petition comes at the end of the breakdown of a relationship, not the beginning. Time and time again, I have seen that with people who come to my surgery, with court cases I have been involved in or observed, and, as most of us have, with friends and acquaintances—people we know—where it has been the end of a sad and painful process that ultimately leads to the conclusion that the marriage is no longer sustainable and they want to move on. We ought to help them to be able to do that. My experience has certainly been that divorce is not undertaken lightly and I think the Secretary of State is right to recognise that.
As an Anglo-Catholic, I take the hon. Gentleman’s point about the sacrament strongly, but I do not believe, in societal terms, that it makes very much difference. In truth, many marriages are not in entered into in a religious context. The weight that is placed on the sacrament, even with those of faith, may vary. Perhaps it should not, but I think that is the reality. For those for whom it is important, it will be a difficult personal decision, as it has been for friends of mine for whom the end of their marriage was very difficult indeed. None the less, they thought it was appropriate to recognise what had happened and to make a break. It is a profound point for those of faith, but I do not think it is an argument against the Bill, as I think the hon. Gentleman agrees.
We also have to bear in mind the suggestion that there might be manipulation of a vulnerable party. I take that seriously and it has been raised by a couple of constituents of mine who think carefully and closely about these matters. However, my experience and all the evidence seem to suggest that the greatest risk of manipulation and pressure being put on a vulnerable party is during the period when the marriage has broken down and people have to wait perhaps for two or five years, especially if, as hon. Members have observed, they are obliged for financial or childcare reasons—or a mixture of both—to continue to live under the same roof. That is the point at which the vulnerable party is often most at risk.
It is perhaps significant that the study, “Finding Fault?”, points out that, at the moment, the system is to some degree “manipulated” by fault being used as a ground to speed up divorce. It is not that the marriage has not broken down, but that it is quicker for someone to get divorced if they allege fault than if they wait two or five years. That can have perverse consequences: people have to say hurtful things against the party with whom they are still living and attempting to bring up their children, so that they can speed up the divorce that they both know is inevitable. I cannot see how that benefits society or, for those of us to whom this is important, a Christian ethos for that family.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct and makes another persuasive point, because it means that a divorce is based on a lie. Frankly, we should not have any lies in a legal process. Years ago, I remember reading Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust”, in which a character has to abscond to Brighton, seemingly with a woman, to provide the grounds for a divorce. This stuff is from 40 or 50 years ago and is nonsense. We need a bit more honesty in the process.
I take my hon. Friend’s point. My pupil master, when I started at the bar, had practised in divorce work under precisely those arrangements prior to the 1969 Act. They used to get what was called “ordinary hotel evidence”, which was an affidavit from the chambermaid or the waiter, who happened to have taken breakfast in bed to a couple. That was a pretty demeaning way of having to go through a legal process and it was rightly got rid of, but at the time, people genuinely thought that that might undermine marriage. It did not, of course, but that is the sort of thing that we have all recognised we need to move on from, and this is just a further adjustment.
There is another serious point about the inability of a party who feels aggrieved by the behaviour of their husband or spouse, who might have left them, to have the ground on the record. With respect, that misunderstands the legal test, which has always been, and continues to be, that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. That is not changed by the Bill. The question of behaviour and conduct is relevant only as one of the facts that is relied upon to support the ground for divorce, which is the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. Moving to a single approach to that—the service of the petition, or the application—simplifies that and does not change the legal test.
Although it is tempting to think that an aggrieved party can get their hurt and concern on the record, it is not relevant as a matter of law because there is no causal connection between the conduct and the ground for the dissolution of marriage, and there never has been since the 1969 Act came into force. It also has the detrimental effect of creating a much more antagonistic attitude, because, first, there is good evidence that people game the system and will exaggerate behaviour to speed up the divorce, and secondly, this clouds the subsequent relationship as parties work out the consequences of the breakdown for finance and families.
It is important that the financial protections for a vulnerable party are specifically preserved under paragraph 10 of the schedule to the Bill, which maintains the existing arrangements. For those concerned about this, it is worth noting that in making a determination on financial arrangements,
“the court must consider all the circumstances including…the age, health, conduct, earning capacity, financial resources and financial obligations of each of the parties to the marriage”.
The suggestion that the change in any way undermines the protection for a vulnerable spouse during a divorce is simply not borne out by that measure, which preserves in the Bill exactly the same test that we have in the current law. I hope that that reassures people who are understandably concerned about that point.
That leads me to my final point, which my hon. Friend Julian Knight rightly raised: we cannot really justify a legal process that encourages people to be untruthful. That is what is happening and what has been attested to by the judiciary at the highest level. The late, much missed Sir Nicholas Wall, the former president of the family division, spoke on this during his tenure in office. His successor, Sir James Munby, one of the most experienced family division judges of his time, has spoken very bluntly about a system that involved hypocrisy and a “lack of intellectual honesty”. To go back to my hon. Friend’s point, Sir James referred to the “‘hotel divorce’ charades” that had been played out in the past. If there is collusion, it is the collusion that is sometimes needed by parties to invent conduct to speed up the divorce rather than waiting two or five years. Somebody may, for whatever reason—because the marriage has been breaking down for a long time—already have a new partner and there may be a new family on the way. One may or may not approve of that, but it is a reality of the world, and we have to have a justice system that recognises it and enables the best outcomes for that world rather than creating an obstacle.
Lady Hale, the president of the Supreme Court, said that the system is misleading because, as she put it, the
“fact used as the peg on which to hang the divorce petition may not bear any relationship to the real reason why the marriage broke down”.
If we are going to tackle marriage breakdown, as I believe we should, we should put the emphasis and resource into intervening much earlier to prevent the breakdown and not to involve a charade, in some cases, at the end of the divorce arrangements. I agree very much with the observations on that from my hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris, who is not in her place. I would also make the case that if there is an area where funding can be made available to restore elements of legal aid, compelling evidence to the Justice Committee has suggested that early advice on family matters should perhaps be the highest priority for its use. I know that the Secretary of State is someone who will be driven by the evidence when he considers those matters.
The person who perhaps clinches it for me—this is important because of his background—is Sir Paul Coleridge, to whom I have already referred. For many years, he was a family division judge, who practised throughout his professional career in family division work. He is also a practising Christian. Against that dual background, he has come to the view that the law requires reform and that the removal of the fault requirement would be a positive benefit and an advantage. He supports the change on that basis. He said that nowadays, most regard the delays under the current system as
“an intolerable block on their ability to move on with their lives. So to get around the delay they invent allegations to satisfy the court and enable it to turn a blind eye to what is really going on.”
Sir Paul also tackles the issue of divorce rates. He says:
“Since 1970 the divorce rate has fluctuated”— he practised for a great deal of that time—
“For some periods it has gone up and for other periods, including now, it has dropped. There is simply no discernible connection between the type of divorce process and the rate of family breakdown. The two are unconnected.”
I have been driven by the evidence to agree with him. I hope that we make much more effort to deal with family breakdown, but changing the process is not going alter that situation.
Sir Paul also says:
“We now have a system that drives people to lie to the court if they are not prepared to wait for two years or longer. That is wrong.”
That must be right. He ended what I think was a very thoughtful piece with the following remark:
“An intelligent process to end unsustainable marriage is good for the reinvigoration of the most important social arrangement yet devised for mankind.”
That is a broad and Christian view of the matter, and a socially and legally informed one, and I commend it to the House. It is the reason I support the Bill.
This debate has seen considered and valuable contributions. There have been many points of agreement across the House—and obviously some differences.
I thank all Members who participated, starting with Anne Marie Morris, who is not in her place. She talked about the importance of marriage while recognising the challenges, issues and realities when people get married and things go wrong. She referred to the 50:50 rule for dividing property, about which there is some misunderstanding. As I understand it, from the many years I studied family law, the 50:50 rule applies to people with long-lasting marriages—30 or 40 years—and maybe several children. Often with short marriages, the rule does not apply. The crux of her argument, however, was that marriage is important but that things can go wrong.
Wera Hobhouse talked about the importance of the Bill and why the law needs to change.
I thank Fiona Bruce, who earnestly talked about the importance and stability of marriage for people and children. I know she holds these views very dearly, as do many across the country and the House. I also thank Jim Shannon for his many contributions in the form of interventions.
Finally, I cannot finish without mentioning Robert Neill, the Chair of the Justice Committee, who, with all his different hats on, gave a very considered speech about why the Bill is necessary. He made the particularly important point that many people were having to exaggerate, lie or invent fault to be able to expedite a divorce. We should not be making our citizens do these things.
In an era when we better understand the complexities of human relationships and the freedom that people deserve to decide how they live their lives, it is clear to most of us that the old and outdated divorce rules need to change. That was crystallised and highlighted by the case of Owens v. Owens, to which the shadow Lord Chancellor and the Chair of the Select Committee referred. Mrs Owens asked for a decree nisi, which was not granted, even though the Supreme Court accepted that the marriage had irretrievably broken down. The law said that there had to be an attribution of fault to one of the parties, so the law as it stood did not allow the marriage to be finished. Subsequently, the then president of the family division, Sir James Munby, said that this aspect of law and procedure was based on
“hypocrisy and a lack of intellectual honesty”.
The Supreme Court also said that it was not for the judiciary or the courts to change the law but for Parliament. I am pleased that Parliament is debating this and that the law will be changed for the betterment of all.
As the Nuffield Foundation put it, the reliance on fault and blame as a key pillar of divorce law is
“at odds with the thrust of wider reforms in the family justice system, which have focussed on reducing conflict and promoting resolution”.
We understand that 1.7 million people currently use fault to get a divorce when fault is not the reality. Given that 90% of family lawyers represented by Resolution say that the current law makes it harder to reduce conflict between ex-partners and that 69% of the public are in favour of no-fault divorce, the time is right to change this archaic rule.
I would, however, like to raise some omissions from the Bill and to hear what the Lord Chancellor has to say. Divorce procedure is just one part of the wide tapestry of our legal system. As has been raised in debate with Ministers, this tapestry is fraying due to decisions made by their party over the past decade. The reforms we have discussed today are welcome attempts to reduce unnecessary conflict and prevent needless emotional stress for divorcing couples and their children, but in other areas of justice and family policy this does not seem to be an issue of concern for the Government.
The deep cuts to legal aid mean that the legal representation required to reach the right divorce settlement will be available only to those with the funds to pay for it. A lack of legal support makes it difficult for people to understand the intricacies of important changes such as these and therefore will reduce the positive impact of the no-fault divorce procedure, which we welcome today. Did the Lord Chancellor agree with the Law Society when it said the Government should, alongside these reforms, reintroduce legal aid for early legal advice to support divorcing couples and help them to reach the best possible settlements for themselves and their children?
I strongly support what my hon. Friend is saying to the Lord Chancellor. One of the major concerns I hear in my constituency surgeries is about individuals seeking advice concerning contact with children and matrimonial proceedings. It is a very emotive subject, as we heard earlier in the debate, and needs to be addressed.
More could be done in the Bill to support the most-at-risk people seeking a divorce. The Bill does not remove the bar on petitioning for divorce in the first year of marriage, despite charities and campaigners pointing to the impact this will have on victims of domestic abuse. We know that big life events such as marriage or pregnancy are hotspots for abuse and controlling behaviour to begin or increase. That first year of marriage is for some not a honeymoon period but a nightmare. It is clear that in 2019 we should not be trapping people in potentially dangerous situations because of an outdated law that does not give people the agency to get themselves out. Can the Lord Chancellor explain the rationale for this omission?
Overall, we welcome the reform, but we urge the Government to put this progressive shift into the context of the wider changes required to our justice system. There is so much more to do to ensure that anyone going through a tough time, such as a divorce or other conflict, has a positive and fair experience while seeking justice. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will deal with some of the questions we have raised. That said, this is a very welcome Bill, which is why the Opposition support it.
I am greatly encouraged by the quality of the debate that we have had today, and for the broad support that the Bill has received from Members on both sides of the House. I particularly thank my hon. Friends the Members for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and for Solihull (Julian Knight), Ian C. Lucas, my hon. Friend Anne Marie Morris, and Wera Hobhouse for their support.
The Bill is intended to help to heal family relationships when division has become unavoidable. No one, of course, seeks such an outcome. Few stand at the altar, or before a registrar, contemplating an ending rather than a beginning—“till death do us part” remains the golden thread of marital aspirations—but such is the flawed and fragile nature of human relationships that it can never be avoided altogether.
I know that all Members have families’ interests at heart. I know, too, that we share a belief in the vital importance of the commitment that marriage and civil partnerships bring, not only to couples and their families but to the wider wellbeing of our society. However, I am keenly aware that we arrive at that belief on the basis of different views and experiences.
I recognise that some Members have misgivings about the Bill. I should confess, as a Catholic myself, that when the Secretary of State presented me with it six weeks ago, I took rather a large gulp. What could I, a good Catholic boy, do with a divorce reform Bill? But the more I studied the Bill and looked at it carefully, the more I saw a civil and human measure that sought to lessen acrimony and create space for reflection. The misgivings that people have, however, are no less a part of the debate, and I am grateful to the Members who have voiced their concern as well as those who have expressed their support.
I am very grateful to the Minister, not least because I have only just come into the Chamber.
I congratulate the Government on introducing this incredibly important Bill. I also pay tribute to Philip Marshall QC, my colleague at the Bar, who has campaigned on the issue of no-fault divorce for many years. Does the Minister agree, however, that we must not only pass this important Bill, but reintroduce legal aid so that couples who are considering divorce can be advised by solicitors at an early stage? That saves a lot of money in the long run, and it is much better for the entire family.
I may well deal with that point briefly later in my speech.
It is worth pointing out that the breakdown of a marriage and the legal process of divorce that comes after it are two very different things. There was a time when the only legal exit from a marriage demanded an act of adultery, but that never stood in the way of anyone walking out on anyone else, and the law as it stands today does not prevent it either. There are general protections for respondents and vulnerable parties in any proceedings, and those will remain. We are also extending to all respondents the ability to apply for the final order to be delayed while the court considers their financial position following divorce.
My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce raised a number of important points. I am not unsympathetic to her wider agenda on support for families, and I look forward to meeting her and, indeed, Lord Farmer in the coming weeks to discuss their manifesto for families. She will be aware of our Reducing Parental Conflict programme, to which £39 million has been allocated, our Troubled Families programme, and many other initiatives across Government. I take on board her point that we need to do far more to support relationships further upstream, because we do not wish to reach a point at which relationships fall apart unnecessarily. I also take the point made by many Members on both sides of the House about the need to reform the finances of divorce, but I consider that to be a much greater issue than can be contained in this Bill. It is highly complex, and there is, as yet, no consensus. However, we recognise that it is an issue that will need to be discussed at some point.
The hon. Member for Bath rightly mentioned adverse childhood experiences. What she said went to the nub of why I believe the Bill to be a humane measure. At the end of the day, children often bear the brunt of the unpleasantness that divorce can cause, and we do not wish to add to that unpleasantness by ensuring that the divorce process is dragged out or becomes more acrimonious than it needs to be.
Many Members have expressed concern about so-called unilateral divorce. We should bear in mind that as marriage is a voluntary union of two people, the moment one person decides that the marriage is over, it is indeed over. The current divorce laws do not prevent unilateral divorce. Only about 2% of divorces are contested, many owing to the mistaken belief that attributing fault can somehow prevent the divorce from occurring. Indeed, when a divorce is contested, the only reasonable option is to prove that there was some flaw in the validity of the marriage originally. It is important to bear in mind what the law actually does, rather than what we might seek to believe that it can do.
I hear the points made by Yasmin Qureshi and others about legal aid. Legal aid remains available to those who need it, such as victims of domestic abuse. It also remains available for mediation when couples are in dispute about finances or child arrangements, which provides a non-litigious route to resolving issues and helping families to move forward constructively. I also hear the point about the bar on the dissolution of marriages in the first year. The remedy for domestic abuse remains a range of proactive orders that the court can make, including non-molestation and occupation orders. We hope that those will include the domestic abuse protection orders referred to in our draft domestic abuse Bill.
We have heard from many stakeholders—a wide range of third parties—who take an interest in these issues and who support the measures that the Government are taking, including, as was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst, the chair of the Marriage Foundation, Sir Paul Coleridge.
The Bill will not, in my view, make divorce more common. It will not make divorce any easier, and it will certainly not make divorce any quicker: the 26-week period will remain in place. However, it may make divorce less acrimonious, and for that reason alone I think it is a worthwhile Bill on which to embark. Divorce and dissolution will happen regardless of how the legal processes effecting them operate, because the irretrievable breakdown of some marriages and civil partnerships is, unfortunately, inevitable. The Bill deals with that reality with the minimum of acrimony by creating the conditions that will allow people to move forward and agree arrangements for the future in an orderly and constructive way, and for that reason I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.