I thank the Secretary of State for his speech introducing this important piece of legislation. Labour welcomes this Bill, which offers a common-sense approach that continues to respect the institution of marriage and civil partnerships, but avoids unnecessary antagonism and costs for people dealing with an often incredibly difficult time in their lives.
Sir James Munby, the former eminent president of the family division, has described the current divorce laws and procedures as “hypocritical” and based on “intellectual dishonesty”. As Sir James pointed out in his damning judgment in the infamous case of Owens v. Owens, the requirement of many couples to evidence unreasonable behaviour can lead to farce.
It was 30 years ago now that I studied Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust” for A-level English, and as the Secretary of State might recall, in the case in Waugh’s novel, the character Tony is forced to spend a platonic weekend in Brighton with a sex worker to fake evidence to allow his divorce. That, of course, was set in the early period of the 20th century. It is surprising that it has taken that long to update these laws.
Divorce is an unhappy event in the lives of many. It has a profound effect on families, and on children in particular. It is important that the law does not force couples into an adversarial contest when a breakdown in a relationship occurs, but allows and encourages them to resolve matters in a constructive way. The Bill modernises the law, which has been fundamentally unchanged for more than half a century, so that it better reflects the realities of a breakdown in a relationship, better protecting the most vulnerable who attempt to come out of an abusive relationship and simplifying the process of ending a marriage or civil partnership without undermining its social and cultural importance.
The divorce process today is archaic and confusing to most people as they enter into an emotionally fraught process. The law forces parties who are going through a divorce to choose between evidencing one of the three fault-based facts about their partner: unreasonable behaviour, adultery or, less commonly, desertion. If neither party is willing to make such an application, the parties must separate but remain married for a period of two years, or five years if one party disputes the divorce. The option for couples today is entering into a lengthy and costly adversarial legal proceeding, or delay and legal limbo.
Both routes lead to difficulties for all and a real risk of harm to others. Couples who enter the process amicably can be quickly pulled apart by the law. There is an incentive for each party to make accusations about the other’s conduct, and that cannot be right. Some couples can easily live apart and bide their time, but for others, moving into separate accommodation without a finalised divorce and any financial settlement is impossible. That is why so many charities and campaign organisations that work with victims of domestic abuse have called for reform in this area for many years.
The new law will allow and promote conciliation and compromise. That will be of real help for families and children of broken relationships. Importantly, it will reduce legal costs that can quickly reach eye-watering sums, quite unnecessarily.