Divorce and Maintenance Law

– in the House of Lords at 3:10 pm on 6th June 2006.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 3:10 pm, 6th June 2006

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the House of Lords judgment on 24 May in the cases Miller v Miller and McFarlane v McFarlane, they have any plans to introduce legislation to reform divorce and maintenance law; and, if so, what is the nature of those plans.

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, the Government have no plans to introduce legislation to reform the law on divorce and spousal maintenance.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she not agree that the regrettably increasing number of divorcing couples need clarity and certainty in making their financial arrangements and that they should be able to organise their financial affairs without incurring excessive costs and debilitating disputes, which the current law often gives rise to? Does she acknowledge the widespread concern that there is now a disincentive for people with assets to enter marriage or even cohabitation, if similar law is to be extended to cohabitants, as has recently been proposed? Will the Government now legislate to make prenuptial agreements enforceable, thereby falling into line with the rest of Europe and ensuring that post-divorce settlements are based on well understood and widely accepted principles?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, the noble Baroness has put several questions to me. First, let me make it clear that the number of decrees absolute granted from 1978 to 2005 has remained at broadly the same level, so we do not have a huge increase. Secondly, we agree that it is important that the courts are able to take into account the circumstances of couples at the tragic point in their lives when they are divorcing. Thirdly, in its proposals on cohabitation, the Law Commission is looking to provide a safety net, no more and no less.

Photo of Lord Renton Lord Renton Conservative

My Lords, will the Government bear it in mind that there is really no scope for reforming divorce law but that maintenance law could be relaxed?

Photo of Lord Goodhart Lord Goodhart Spokesperson in the Lords (Shadow Lord Chancellor), Constitutional Affairs, Advisory Team On Legal Matters, Cross-Portfolio and Non-Portfolio Responsibilities

My Lords, we welcome the Government's decision to refer the rights of cohabitees to the Law Commission, but, as the rights of cohabitees are necessarily linked at least indirectly to those of married couples and civil partners, would it not be a good idea to include in the Law Commission's review the rights arising on the dissolution of a marriage or civil partnership? Given that it has been 10 years since the passing of the Family Law Act 1996, which unfortunately turned out to be a failure, is it not time to revisit the issue?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, the Law Commission is consulting and has published a consultation paper. As I have indicated, the purpose of that is to provide a safety net to ensure that we avoid unfairness when considering long-term cohabiting partnerships, in particular those involving children, whether they end in separation or death. The noble Lord will be able to comment on the consultation paper and put forward his views.

Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench

My Lords, can the Minister give an assurance that any review will take account of children where they are involved in a marriage or partnership?

Photo of The Bishop of Norwich The Bishop of Norwich Bishop

My Lords, is it not time to review the entire range of financial incentives and disincentives to marry, including tax allowances for married couples, so that government support for marriage can be demonstrated through our system of taxation as well as in a host of other ways?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, I am not sure that, when people marry, their first priority is to consider their financial circumstances or taxation. In all they have done, this Government have been keen to support families, especially the children.

Photo of Viscount Bledisloe Viscount Bledisloe Crossbench

My Lords, will the noble Baroness explain to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that two people who live together voluntarily and on an equal basis are cohabiters and not cohabitees?

Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench

My Lords, what is the trend of the success rate in obtaining maintenance, once it has been granted? That may go slightly beyond the Minister's brief. To what extent are children receiving the full financial support that they have a right to?

Photo of Baroness Ashton of Upholland Baroness Ashton of Upholland Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Constitutional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Constitutional Affairs)

My Lords, that question goes beyond my brief and even beyond my department. However, I will endeavour to find out as much as I can and write to the noble Earl.