Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:48 pm on 8th June 2020.

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Photo of Bob Neill Bob Neill Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 8:48 pm, 8th June 2020

This is an important Bill and I support it, because I am a practising Anglican and because I take marriage seriously. If I thought it undermined marriage, I would not support it, but I genuinely do not think it does. I do not believe that anyone embarks upon a marriage intending it to break up—I did not with my first marriage, but it did. As my wife and I were both people of faith, that created heartbreak for us, as it would create concern for many of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have concerns about the Bill, but the sad reality is that divorce often comes at the end of a lengthy period of breakdown and is not, of itself, the catalyst.

It behoves those of us who wish to have a civilised justice system to make it possible for that sad reality to be dealt with in as civilised, compassionate, swift, and humane way as possible, not least if there happen to be children from the marriage, or where one of the parties might be vulnerable, financially or in other ways.

The requirement to prove fault as one of the facts to show irretrievable breakdown unhappily does not help that process—hence my intervention on the Lord Chancellor —and regrettably it imports, at the very beginning, a degree of antagonism into a legal process. Indeed, it goes further than that, as Sir James Munby, a distinguished former president of the Family Division observed, because it almost encourages people to be intellectually dishonest and to game the system. It cannot be right that all too often—I say this having spoken to many practitioners in the field—the first discussions between the two parties’ solicitors will be along the lines of, “What is the minimum allegation that my client can make against your client, that will meet the test but will not cause undue offence?” That is a pretty painful, and rather sad and dishonest process for people to have to go through, and it detracts from what ought to be the real point of saying, “Can we make sure that the parties are left in the best possible position, either financially or in terms of the children?” Removing that degree of antagonism, delay, and cost seems to me a civilised thing to do.

It is neither humane nor particularly Christian to trap people in an unhappy marriage, particularly if one of the parties is unable to move out of the matrimonial home and that prolongs matters. I therefore welcome the Bill, and it is significant that it is supported by Resolution, which represents 6,500 family law practitioners. The Bill is also supported by every senior member of the judiciary with experience in the family field, and it chimes with my experience as a young barrister, when I did some family work before moving on to other spheres of activity.

Finally in support of the reasons for the Bill, I say this. If there is to be protection, it is important that the Lord Chancellor retains the protection in paragraph 10 of the schedule for the financially vulnerable claimant, given that under the Bill, conduct can be taken to the courts when assessing the appropriate measures to take. The right place for any conduct to be considered is when working out arrangements thereafter; we should not be creating an antagonistic start to recognising the breakdown of the marriage, yet that has happened. If conduct is relevant—often it is not—let us consider it in the right place, and that is what the Bill does.

Finally, I will pray in aid someone whom I quoted in an earlier debate on a Bill almost exactly like this one during the previous Parliament. That Bill was not opposed at Second Reading, and I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will reflect before opposing this Bill tonight. Sir Paul Coleridge, chairman of the Marriage Foundation, and a former High Court judge of the Family Division, practised family law throughout the whole of his career—again, he happens to be a practising Christian. His conclusion was that the current situation is an intolerable block on people’s ability to move on with their lives. Waiting for the five or two-year period of consent does not reflect the fact that if there has been a lengthy breakdown, people may already have met other partners or be hoping to have new families and move on. Indeed, he went further than that and said that 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—we cannot have a justice system that encourages that. Sir Paul Coleridge said:

“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 humane view, and I endorse it in the House.