Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:55 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 7:55 pm, 8th June 2020

I will just make some progress. I will of course allow for interventions in a proportionate way, remembering the time pressures that we are all under.

The Bill purposefully does not seek to change the other aspects of divorce law for financial provision—I dealt with that issue in my response to an intervention from my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly. It is more than half a century since the Divorce Reform Act 1969 gave rise to the current law. There is only one legal ground for divorce or dissolution—namely that the marriage has broken down irretrievably—but existing law requires that the petitioner must satisfy the court of at least one of five facts before the court will hold that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. Three of those facts—unreasonable behaviour; adultery, which does not apply in respect of civil partnerships; and desertion—rely on the conduct of the respondent. Two of those facts rely on the parties’ separation—namely two years, if both parties consent, and otherwise on the basis of five years’ separation.

Around two out of five divorces in England and Wales currently rely on the two years’ separation fact. The parties must have been separated for at least two years before the presentation of the divorce petition. However, that route to divorce can be used only if the respondent consents; if the respondent does not agree, it is a five-year wait before the divorce can be granted.

Around three out of five petitioners for divorce rely on the conduct facts—that is, unreasonable behaviour, adultery or, in rare cases, desertion. In only around 2% of cases does a respondent indicate an initial wish to contest a petition. Such initial opposition can often be driven by strong disagreement with what has been said about them by the other spouse in the petition. Of those contested petitions, each year a mere handful proceed to a trial at which the respondent’s case is heard. It is abundantly clear that marriages are not saved by the ability of a respondent to contest a divorce, because marriage is—has to be—above all things a consensual union.

I set out at the beginning that the current law incentivises many divorcing couples to engage in proceedings that quickly become acrimonious, even if it had been the intention to divorce amicably. Research shows that spouses are often surprised when told by a solicitor that they must either choose to wait a minimum of two years to divorce or be prepared to make allegations about the other spouse’s conduct. Although this is no longer the world of the staged scene of adultery in a hotel so criticised by the great A. P. Herbert, former Member of Parliament in this House and the author of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1937, it is right that we pause for thought about a situation wherein the law and circumstances are stretched in a way that does not help anybody, least of all the lawmakers themselves. It is a great poetic irony that A. P. Herbert went on to write the smash-hit musical “Bless the Bride” some years after he helped to author that major reform to the law of divorce, but perhaps that story itself makes an eloquent point: those of us who seek to make changes in this sensitive area of the law can, in the same breath, absolutely celebrate the institution of marriage and the values that surround it.