Divorce (Financial Provision) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:59 pm on 11th May 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 1:59 pm, 11th May 2018

I thank the noble Baroness for her insights on that. To a certain extent, the Government agree. It is why we have been working with the Family Justice Council and are continuing to look at this area. We want to make sure that everything is in alignment. Everything has eventually to be in alignment, whether that be the decisions of the judges or the expectations of those going in front of them and seeking a fair divorce.

Returning to the guide, I wish I had seen it when I went through my—thankfully—only moderately costly divorce. Reaching a financial agreement is very stressful, as I think all divorcing couples can attest. The further away from judges that agreements between the individuals can be reached, the better it is.

I return to flexibility and certainty, as mentioned by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, my noble friend Lady Bottomley and the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso. In any reform of the law to balance flexibility and certainty, the Government need to be sure that a proposal would achieve what it sets out to do and would not cause unintended difficulties. Given the complexity involved in disentangling the finances of a shared life and the impact of any changes at a personal level, the Government are keen to see a solid evidence base for reform. We are very open to reviewing any and all evidence from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, or any noble Lords. Put simply, we all want to get this right.

I acknowledge that noble Lords have pointed to the model of Scots law. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Davidson of Glen Clova, for his comments on its operation and some of its consequences. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, has drawn attention to research by Professor Jane Mair and others on how the Family Law (Scotland) Act 1985 has worked in practice. A proposal to amend English law in line with Scots law may well appear attractive. I am conscious, however, that there are dissenting voices among the judiciary, family law practitioners and beyond—and, perhaps as significantly, in another place. If the Government conclude that the law in England and Wales needs reform, whether of the duration of periodical payments or of the matters that a court must consider, we must take account of the provisions as a whole and the effects of any changes.

The so-called “big money” divorces mentioned by many noble Lords make for eye-catching tabloid headlines, and I appreciate that several of your Lordships think that awards have been overgenerous. One might also conclude that because such cases come to our country and to the English courts demonstrates perhaps our laws in this jurisdiction are fair, and that the impartiality of our judiciary is highly regarded. But such cases are small in number and a world away from the circumstances faced by the vast majority of divorcing couples.

The question for government is where any reforms would leave more typical cases, perhaps those involving people of an age at which it would be difficult to return to their former career, be that a man or a woman. Couples who have no intention of divorcing make decisions in the expectation of a long-term partnership. These decisions then have serious repercussions on one or more of the parties when, against their initial expectations, their marriage breaks down. With all this in mind, I now turn briefly to the detail of the Bill.

Clause 2 defines matrimonial property—in broad terms, this is property acquired during the marriage but not, for example, from an inheritance—and seeks to exclude property acquired before the marriage from consideration as an asset when financial orders are made. The Government’s concern remains that this could cause hardship if someone’s financial needs could be met only if assets that the other spouse had acquired before the marriage were included.

Clause 3 seeks to make nuptial agreements enforceable on condition of certain safeguards. The Government are considering a similar recommendation, made by the Law Commission, which has additional safeguards. I note the comments of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester, suggesting a test of reasonableness or fairness when making an agreement, and the need for independent advice, noted by the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso. We are considering introducing nuptial agreements and we will make our position known on this recommendation in due course. If the Government decide to go ahead, we will of course give consideration to the guidance needed for couples, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner.

Clause 4 sets out a presumptive 50:50 split of property. People do not, of course, always leave a marriage equally. One partner often has better employment prospects. One partner is often expected to shoulder most of the caring responsibilities. The existing law allows for redistribution of assets to make up for this. The Government remain concerned that changing the law in the way proposed could have an adverse effect on the financially weaker party and their transition to full financial independence.

Clause 5 seeks, in part, to limit the duration of periodical payments to five years,

“unless the court is satisfied that there is no other means of making provision for a party to the marriage and that that party would otherwise be likely to suffer serious financial hardship as a result”.

I appreciate that periodical payments often draw headlines, being called “a meal-ticket for life” in divorce cases that involve the more affluent. However, it is worth noting that most people do not, in fact, apply for periodical payments when they divorce. It is important that one type of divorce should not cloud the debate around what happens to those of more limited financial means. We have, it is important to say, common ground in wanting to support people to move to financial independence. The Government are not persuaded, for the time being, that the existing law does not support this objective. However, as I said previously, we are happy to review any evidence that comes to light.

On Clause 6, the Government continue to believe that the existing provision on taking a party’s conduct into account remains adequate.

I have outlined the Government’s reservations about the Bill, but I want to focus on where we agree. While the Government’s position on the accessibility of the law and the clarity that it offers divorcing couples may differ from the position of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, we all want the law to support couples and encourage a fair outcome. I am conscious, too, that other individuals and groups have also shown an interest in divorce finances, and the Government will wish to take a range of views, and solid evidence, into consideration if we conclude that reform is necessary. My honourable friend Dr Phillip Lee recently said in another place that he is hopeful that the Government can work across the House and beyond as we continue efforts to improve the family justice system. This remains true. It would not be helpful to approach consideration of reform in any partisan way.

I am aware that I have spoken at length and may not have covered as many points as I would have liked, but I really wanted to set out the Government’s position. If I am able to add more colour, I will write to all noble Lords who have spoken today. I acknowledge the mood on all sides of this House and the strength of support for the Bill. I assure your Lordships that the Government will reflect on all that has been said today.