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 need to make some progress, because I am conscious of time.

The lack of transparency and objectivity means that a spouse who is trying not to cause unnecessary hurt risks not meeting the legal threshold. That has consequences, for example, for victims of domestic abuse and can lead to the manufacture of blame between couples who might have grown apart entirely amicably.

What we are creating is a level playing field. Our equal-handed approach will allow all couples to use the same legal process and will not favour couples who can afford to live apart before their divorce. Vulnerable parties will no longer have to work out whether they can afford to be separated for two years, or face the danger of presenting conduct particulars in respect of an abusive spouse. Our proposals remove many obstacles currently faced by victims of domestic abuse in the legal process of divorce. Victims will not have to place themselves in danger by detailing their abuser’s conduct; they will not have to remain in a legal relationship for a further two or more years in order to rely on a separation fact; and they will not have to fear an abusive spouse exerting their control by contesting the divorce. This position has to be changed, and divorcing couples must be given every opportunity to avoid conflict.

In developing our proposals, we have reflected on a wide range of views, including from the profession, the judiciary and couples themselves, that emerged during our consultation process and from evidence given during consideration of the Bill in the previous Session of Parliament. We have also considered and continue to consider carefully the views of those who oppose reform, although, with respect, I think that there is something of a disconnection between what some think the current law does and what it actually does.

With all that in mind, I will talk briefly about the measures in the Bill. The two stages of divorce and dissolution are maintained. The current decree nisi and decree absolute become a conditional order and then the final order. Always, the intention is to make the process more understandable and more accessible to everyone who seeks to use it, but we have retained the two-stage process because it ensures that a divorce is never automatic; rather, the decision should be considered and intentional at each stage. The reform will retain irretrievable breakdown as the sole legal ground for divorce and dissolution, but replace the current requirement to evidence that with a conduct or separation fact, as outlined in the statement of irretrievable breakdown. Indeed, the statement itself will be conclusive evidence that the marriage or civil partnership has irretrievably broken down; it therefore removes the possibility of contesting the decision to end that relationship, which currently only 2% of spouses do. Importantly, and for the first time, couples will be able to make a joint application where the decision to divorce is mutual. That will create a level playing field for joint applicants and encourage them to work together from the very beginning of the process.

As I have said, the new minimum period of 20 weeks is all part of the drive to create an equal, level approach. It ends any suggestion of so-called quickie divorce. In addition to the 20-week minimum period, the current six-week minimum period between conditional and final orders will remain, so six months is a minimum, not a maximum or absolute time limit. As is currently the case, a conditional order may not be pronounced unless the court is satisfied in relation to service on the respondent.

We are aware of the concerns of hon. and right hon. Members and the Law Society about the question of delayed service where this is done by the applicant’s spouse, and we will of course work with the Family Procedure Rule Committee on that point, and indeed on the point about making sure that divorce does not end up being a complete surprise to a respondent who perhaps knew nothing about service. We will, through the Family Procedure Rule Committee, make sure that those important concerns are dealt with.

Our proposals allow time for the applicant to consider the practical implications of the important decision to divorce. We estimate that, under the new law, the legal process of divorce will take longer for about four fifths—80%—of couples, after taking account of the projected impact of the take-up of the streamlined, digitised divorce service. That means that the question of quickie divorce is one that is wholly refuted, I believe, by the provisions and, indeed, the evidence that underlies this new reform.

The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend Alex Chalk, will, in his summing up, deal with other points that arise through the Bill. I know hon. Members will have read its provisions and it would perhaps be idle of me to go through all of them in order. This is not a long Bill, but it is, I concede, a significant one—no, I do not concede; I make no apology for the fact that it is a significant Bill, because we are talking about the lives of people we represent, and about making this sensitive and difficult process an easier one.

Importantly, apart from maintaining the balance, we will retain the existing triple lock that requires an applicant to confirm the decision to proceed with the divorce at each of the three stages, meaning that divorce will never be, to coin a phrase, automatic. First, the applicant must apply for the divorce; secondly, they must, after the end of the minimum 20-week period, confirm to the court that it should make the conditional order; and, thirdly, following the expiration of a further minimum six-week period, the applicant must apply for the final order of divorce.

This, I believe, is a measured Bill, which we shall implement in a measured way. I pray in aid the spirit of one of my predecessors, the great Tory Lord Lyndhurst, who, as my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes will know, was no lover of reform. But at the end of his long and distinguished parliamentary career in the other place, he spoke passionately about the rights of women and the abandoned party in Victorian marriages, and paved the way, as a Tory, for the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. He is a predecessor whom I invoke today, and in whose spirit I move the Second Reading of this Bill.