Amendment 15

Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill [HL] - Report – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 17 March 2020.

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Baroness Howe of Idlicote:

Moved by Baroness Howe of Idlicote

15: Before Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—“Report on the effect on children of divorce or dissolution in families with low conflict(1) The Secretary of State must publish a report on the impact of divorce or dissolution on children of a marriage or civil partnership ending when there is either no conflict or low conflict between the parties.(2) The Secretary of State must lay the report under subsection (1) before both Houses of Parliament.”

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, in response to my amendment on children in Committee, the Minister said:

“Divorce, at least in terms of the legal process, is of limited duration”.—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 549.]

It may be seen in those terms by parents but I suggest to the Minister that that is not the case for children. He also suggested that I should review the family test for the Bill in response to the research evidence that I presented in Committee. I have done so and it seems largely to focus on reducing conflict between parents. The document refers to one specific study, which is described as highlighting the fact that

“frequent, intense, poorly resolved and child related interparental conflict adversely affects long-term emotional, behavioural, social, academic development, and future intergenerational/interpersonal relationship behaviours for” children and young people.

Much has been made in this House of the damage done to children by warring parents staying together—I think that message will have reached the public loud and clear—and I am sure that in those situations children are not surprised to find their parents choosing to divorce. However, I am concerned that both our parliamentary debate and general public discourse have been less informed of the fact that where there is no conflict between parents, divorce can be more harmful to their children than their staying together. Children can face a divorce that comes out of nowhere.

I quoted extensively in Committee from research that highlighted this issue. I hope the House will also allow me to summarise that again. First, of those who split up, low-conflict families tare in the majority—that is, 60% compared to 9% high-conflict couples. Secondly, a 12-year longitudinal study found that children in low-conflict families had higher levels of well-being if their parents stayed together than if they divorced. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, quoted social scientist Elizabeth Marquardt, who said:

“The children of low-conflict couples fare worse after divorce because the divorce marks their first exposure to a serious problem. One day, without much warning, their world just falls apart.”

Thirdly, it is the new reality that children find themselves in that brings them stress after parents with low conflict split up—possibly in a new home, a new school and a new relationship with both parents as one moves away and the other takes on more responsibility.

My amendment does not say that parents must not divorce. Rather, it would require the Secretary of State to

“publish a report on the impact of divorce or dissolution on children of a marriage or civil partnership ending when there is either no conflict or low conflict between the parties.”

So far the Government have chosen to adopt the rather un-nuanced approach that conflict is always bad for children and that minimising it to the greatest possible extent is always good. They have not demonstrated any willingness to engage with the research that suggests that, first, while of course conflict is generally negative, there are occasions when a lack of conflict can make things even worse for children; and, secondly, that in a low-conflict context the interests of the children are best served by the marriage continuing. In that context, it makes sense that the Government should do more to encourage couples to fight for their marriage, rather than say, “It’s an autonomous decision” and go out of their way to remove obstacles to its termination.

In this context, I am moving this amendment because I want to ask the Lord Chancellor to engage formally with this research. The family test is inadequate because it does not do so. This is a major problem. There is a strong argument for saying that, until such time as the Lord Chancellor has engaged with this research, this legislation should proceed no further. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative

My Lords, I will speak to my Amendment 16. I have brought back this amendment on the need for an annual report on the impact of the Bill because I disagree with the Minister’s reasons for rejecting it in Committee.

As I said, we could have moved to a divorce system that more closely resembled that of Scotland, which has much to recommend it, given that it sees so few fault applications. However, the Government have chosen to undertake an uncharted course, to a system described as enabling possibly the fastest divorce in the world, certainly for recipients of an application. Therefore, it seems irresponsible not to keep very careful track of any changes in our divorce, dissolution and separation patterns which ensue from this very significant change, especially given the existing high rates of family breakdown in this country.

I mentioned in Committee that research on which the Government have relied to justify removing fault points to how this degrades the commitment of marriage. Professor Wolfers says that its benefits are reduced; therefore cohabitation, which is widely agreed to be a less stable relationship form, becomes more common. So this will, very likely, have a knock-on effect on the number of children who experience the breakdown of their parents’ relationship.

I disagree with the Minister that the requirement to report annually on the number of divorce applications, including by gender, is unnecessary, given that the data is already publicly available and published in the Family Court Statistics Quarterly. The point of reporting is to be accountable for changes in that data and to draw Parliament’s attention to it. If the Government are not convinced that the Act will have a detrimental effect on any of these patterns, they should have no qualms about reporting on it.

I also disagree that it would be unduly onerous for the courts service to collect income data, or unduly intrusive for the applicants to supply it. The collection of income data is easily achieved by including this in standard demographic data income bands, the completion of which would of course be voluntary. We are constantly told that data collection is important to the Government, to help understand why people make choices, and to help make forecasts for the future. Understanding how different income brackets are affected by a policy is therefore not unusual or shocking. It makes no sense to me that in this area the Government are so coy about asking people to give them this information.

In conclusion, there is an inconsistency in the Government’s approach to informing themselves when it comes to tracking the effects of this Bill, despite the heavy social costs of relationship failure and the ramifications across the whole of government. I encourage the Minister to see the constructive point of this amendment in helping the future outworking of this law.

Photo of Lord McColl of Dulwich Lord McColl of Dulwich Conservative

My Lords, I wish to speak to Amendment 17 in my name. It seeks to address some confusion that emerged during debate in Committee. I will not press this amendment to a vote but I hope that, as a result of this debate, we may gain greater clarity about the place for reconciliation during the divorce process.

We have heard very mixed messages from the Government on their commitment to reconciliation in the divorce process. On the one hand, there have been repeated statements of interest in promoting it. I have found no fewer than 30 occasions where the Government have said that promoting reconciliation during divorce is part of the policy intention behind these reforms.

I would like to highlight a few of these statements. The initial consultation document from September 2018 stated:

“The reformed law should have two objectives: to make sure that the decision to divorce continues to be a considered one, and that spouses have an opportunity to change course”.

The Government’s response to the consultation in April last year stated:

“Sometimes, a marriage will still be reparable at the point at which one spouse seeks the divorce … But the law can—and should—have a role in providing couples with an opportunity to reflect on that momentous decision and to pull back from the brink if they decide that reconciliation is achievable.”

At Second Reading of the Bill in the other place in June last year, the then Justice Minister stated:

“The Government believe that the need to confirm to the court that it may make the conditional order, and to apply to the court for the final order, means that a divorce or dissolution is never automatic and that the decision to divorce is a considered one, with opportunities for a change of heart right up to the last moment.”—[Official Report, Commons, 25/6/19; col. 580.]

This is consistent with the family impact test assessment, which suggests that one of the strengths of the new system is the increased scope that it will provide for reconciliation. It states:

“The current law works against reconciliation by incentivising (in order to get a divorce more quickly) a spouse to make allegations about the other spouse’s conduct which can create conflict … The current law also offers little opportunity for reflection and conciliation, as the initial decree of divorce can come only a matter of weeks after the divorce proceedings have started.”

It then says that the Government want to exploit the new opportunities for reconciliation under a no-fault system, saying:

“We want to create conditions for couples and parents to reconcile if they can”.

Yet despite these repeated statements in support of reconciliation, and the suggestion that the scope of reconciliation will be enhanced in the no-fault system, there is little or no evidence of a political will to exploit this. On the contrary, there have instead been contradictory statements that reconciliation is not possible once the divorce process has started. I was concerned that, in response to my amendment in Committee, the Minister replied:

“The noble Lord expressed concern, as did others, that the Government’s statistics give the impression that a significant number of divorce petitions never reach decree absolute. There is, however, no evidence that these represent cases of reconciliation.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 537.]

Later in the proceedings, he said:

“I understand the desire of noble Lords to see that the marriage relationship can be supported, but it has to be supported at the right time. That is not at the point of an application for divorce on the grounds of irretrievable breakdown, which is why we do not consider that the Bill is the right vehicle for tackling the wider issues that lead to relationship breakdown.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 565.]

There seems to be some conflict between these two sets of statements, so I am probing the Government’s intention. If one believes that reconciliation, once divorce begins, is so unlikely that it makes no sense to prioritise it, then the statements in the consultation, consultation response, press releases, family impact assessment and at previous readings of this Bill all seem misplaced.

Rereading the debates, I observe that when pressed on why the assertion that reconciliation in divorce is insignificant, the Minister placed great emphasis on one piece of research from the Nuffield Foundation which has already been discussed. That report has quite a small sample size: around 300 court files, of which 51 did not complete the divorce process. Of these the information suggests that: in five cases, there was an apparent change of course or mind by the petitioner; in four cases there was acknowledgement returned but no application for a nisi; and in one, reconciliation after nisi pronounced. In 10 out of the 51, there was no clear reason why the cases did not proceed. This seems a very small sample from which to make such strong definitive statements that reconciliation is not possible in the divorce process. Furthermore, this goes against research I have seen from the United States conducted by Doherty, Peterson and Willoughby, who engaged with a sample of 2,484 parents during the divorce process and found that 25% of those individuals indicated a belief that their marriage could still be saved.

I am grateful to the Minister, who yesterday drew my attention to the assessment provided by Newcastle University of the reconciliation pilot studies run under the Family Law Act. He cited those to justify not placing too much emphasis on reconciliation once the divorce process had begun. Indeed, the following line was quoted to that end in earlier debates:

“For most, the information about marriage support will not come early enough to give them a real chance of saving their marriage.”

But the sentence after that quote was omitted from the earlier debates. It states:

“Perhaps, in an implemented system, between 5 and 10 per cent of attendees will turn back from the brink of divorce.”

Five to 10 per cent may not sound very much but in the context of 100,000 divorces a year, that could be 5,000 to 10,000 couples. Even if we were more pessimistic and said that only half the couples got this information, that would still be 2,500 to 5,000 couples reconciling. The benefits of this would be considerable. It is clear that the researchers did not conclude that promoting reconciliation during the divorce process had failed or not succeeded enough to justify an ongoing focus on saving marriages within the divorce process. Instead, they argued that

“the research suggests that this kind of information needs to be more carefully targeted at those for whom the door to reconciliation is a viable option when they attend an information meeting.”

The report spoke particularly positively about the pilot studies, where people had a meeting with a marriage counsellor, stating:

“The MWMC was well-received in the pilots and provides a blueprint for implementation. It was particularly helpful in moving people on from ‘stuck’ positions, enabling them either to put effort into possible reconciliation, or to move forward into divorce feeling more able to cope with it.”

Hearing some speak about the provisions of the Family Law Act, you get the impression these were draconian measures that were deeply unhelpful. In fact, the messages coming out of the pilots were very positive. Some 90% of attendees were positive about the experience. The report states:

“The vast majority of those attending an information meeting described it as useful, and the information leaflets as both user-friendly and accessible, and found that their combined levels of knowledge about a wide range of subjects were extended.”

Given the huge public policy benefits of marriage to health and well-being, which I set out in my speech at Second Reading, the Government need to be on a very firm foundation indeed if they are to cast aside the significance of the shortfall between the number of divorces commenced and concluded, suggesting with great confidence that reconciliation is negligible once the divorce process has begun. I do not believe that one can argue that conclusively from the Nuffield or indeed the Newcastle report. Moreover, the statistics I have quoted from Nuffield are based on research which looks at couples who divorce under the current system. We do not know how couples will act under the new system. Law and prophecy are two separate subjects. Indeed, the Nuffield report was very helpful when it stated that under a system where one party is notified of the intention to divorce, as proposed by this Bill,

“there is also the possibility that notification would be more facilitative of reconciliation.”

I see nothing in the present research to demonstrate authoritatively that we should not bother actively promoting reconciliation during the divorce process. In this context, the Lord Chancellor should produce a report, as my amendment proposes,

“drawing from multiple peer reviewed academic sources comparing the scope for reconciliation under a fault-based divorce system with a no-fault based divorce system”.

Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP 7:00, 17 March 2020

My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendment 15 in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Howe. As I noted in my speech in Committee, in all our debates on the Bill we must not forget children. The Family Impact Test assessment affirms the Bill on the basis that it seeks to “reduce conflict”. However, while I fully understand the Government’s desire to reduce conflict in the divorce process, it is telling that the majority of couples who divorce are in low-conflict relationships.

The figure mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, is that 60% of couples that split are in low-conflict relationships. This research comes from Professor Spencer James of Brigham Young University. He states that these low-conflict couples are

“largely indistinguishable before they split from couples that remain together”.

These findings challenge the assumption that the majority of couples that split up are in constant conflict with one another, yet that assumption seems to underpin this legislation. James’s research comes from the UK’s largest household panel survey, Understanding Society. He found that only 9% of married couples in the United Kingdom who split could be described as high-conflict couples. He states:

“Both unhappiness and conflict are far less prevalent among couples who are about to split than one might reasonably expect.”

All of this is important when we return to research on the impact on children of family breakdown. Parents are more likely fall into poverty following separation. Therefore, they need much greater levels of state support. Some 60% of lone parents receive housing benefit, compared to just 10% of couple parents. Even when income and education are taken into account, studies find negative effects on children from divorce. One study, from Lee and McLanahan, looking at 2,952 mothers and children, revealed that instability especially affects children’s socioemotional development.

Yet the impact of divorce on children seems to depend on what came before. Children tend to do better if their parents exit a high-conflict relationship and worse if they exit a low-conflict one. As James notes in the research I mentioned earlier:

“This potentially counterintuitive finding in fact makes great sense. The break-up of a low conflict relationship comes largely out of the blue for the children. They are then left to conclude either that relationships are profoundly unpredictable or that they are somehow responsible. It’s easy to see how either of these conclusions can then undermine and sabotage their own future prospects of a loving committed relationship”.

This amendment would require the Government simply to look further into the impact of no or low-conflict divorce on children. It is a significant failing that the Family Impact Test assessment has not engaged with this. I think there will be a good deal of benefit in gaining greater understanding of why these couples divorce and therefore in investing more effort in helping them. If these married couples are saying they are relatively happy one year before divorce, what pushes them to make that decision? Understanding that would enable targeted support and help.

The research I have talked about should give us hope. If 60% of couples of are low-conflict and many of them are happy one year before they divorce, perhaps those marriages could be saved. Divorce is generally not in the best interests of the children of those families, so keeping them together would be a great benefit to them. I support Amendment 15.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, I wish to speak in support of Amendment 17, which was tabled by the noble Lord, Lord McColl. I am aware that he does not intend to test the opinion of the House on it, but nevertheless I think there are some things that merit being said.

The noble Lord noted in Committee that there are no less than 27 references to reconciliation in the Government’s comments setting out their response to their consultation on divorce law reform. They include the statement that,

“the law can – and should – have a role in providing couples with an opportunity to reflect on that momentous decision and to pull back from the brink if they decide that reconciliation is achievable”.

If we look beyond that document there are plenty of other examples, including in the Family Impact Test assessment of this Bill, which states:

“The current law works against reconciliation by incentivising … a spouse to make allegations about the other spouse’s conduct which can create conflict. The alternative option which requires the couple to live apart for a substantial period of time can disincentivise efforts at reconciliation because the separation period can be affected if the couple try living together again. The current law also offers little opportunity for reflection and conciliation, as the initial decree of divorce can come only a matter of weeks after the divorce proceedings have started.”

In promoting a no-fault system, the Family Impact Test states:

“We want to create conditions for couples and parents to reconcile if they can”.

In this context, it seems to me that commissioning research on how reconciliation is best facilitated under the new regime proposed by the Bill compared to the fault-based system that we have now is vital. The Minister might be preparing to tell me that reconciliation rarely happens during the divorce process, as he did in Committee when he said that there was little evidence that divorces that do not proceed do so because the couple have reconciled. If the Government really think that, it seems completely contradictory to all their statements about reconciliation.

I hope the Minister will not try to square this circle by simply saying that the Government’s position is that while it is not worth prioritising reconciliation, of course they support reconciliation when it is possible. Multiple statements of commitment to the promotion of reconciliation in the Government’s response to the consultation, press releases and family test are such that it does not make sense for the Government then to say that, by the time the divorce process starts, it is too late for reconciliation.

I note that when the Minister suggested this argument in Committee, he cited in defence the Newcastle University study of the Family Law Act 1996 pilots. He told the House about the information meetings that were part of the Family Law Act 1996 and said:

“The purpose of that meeting included providing the parties with information about marriage counselling. Academic research into various models of information meetings found that they came too late to save marriages and tended to incline parties who were unsure towards divorce.”—[Official Report, 3/3/20; col. 564.]

He also implied elsewhere in Committee that the information meetings were not effective.

In truth, the report actually suggested that, if the reconciliation provisions in the Family Law Act were properly implemented within the divorce process, between 5% and 10% of divorce applications could be stopped. In my estimation, that is hugely significant. Saving 5% to 10% of marriages that will otherwise end in divorce means saving between 5,000 and 10,000 marriages per year. That would be an extraordinary achievement.

Indeed, the University of Newcastle evaluation says:

“Our research demonstrates beyond doubt that separating and divorcing families need more and better information than is currently available, that those who attended information meetings on a voluntary basis in the pilots appreciated the information provided, and that the MWMC [meeting with the marriage counsellor] is capable of helping people with a wide variety of agendas to move forward and take the next steps.”

It also states:

“Looking at the evidence from the information meeting pilots it is reasonable to conclude that information provision and the MWMC did and can support the principles of the Family Law Act. Some attendees have reflected carefully on the decision to divorce and some took steps to save the marriage; messages about reducing conflict and being conciliatory were understood and respected; and parents were helped to consider the needs of their children. These impacts are not easily measured by monitoring the use or non-use of particular services, but can be understood in more subtle terms.”

The evaluation recommended that the information needed to be personally tailored to the needs of the couple, rather than one sizes fits all.

In this context, the argument that the Bill is about just the divorce process and that marriage support should be addressed elsewhere is very difficult to sustain. First, it is not consistent with many of the Government’s statements about their focus on reconciliation within the divorce process. Secondly, it is not consistent with what the academic research says about the importance of promoting reconciliation within the divorce process. Thirdly, it fails to engage with the logic of their own Family Test Assessment, which says that finding reconciliation in a fault-based system is hard and that no-fault provides new opportunities in this regard. On this point, I note that the Nuffield report, which some have quoted selectively to defend not prioritising reconciliation during the divorce process, actually states that under a no-fault system, such as that proposed by this Bill,

“there is also the possibility that notification would be more facilitative of reconciliation.”

In this context, the Government’s failure to use Section 22 of the Family Law Act is deeply unfortunate. They should have allocated grants through Section 22 to really seek to understand the opportunities for greater reconciliation in a no-fault system and then applied Section 22 money to help exploit those new opportunities. I had hoped that the Section 22 amendment would have been brought back on Report. I very much hope that it is pursued in another place. I very much hope that the Government will take cognisance of what has been said here today.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 7:15, 17 March 2020

I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to this part of the debate. I will speak to Amendments 15, 16 and 17.

Amendment 15 was moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, and would require the Secretary of State to publish a report on the impact of divorce or dissolution on children of a marriage or civil partnership ending

“when there is either no conflict” as it is termed, “or low conflict”, as it is termed, “between the parties.”

It would require the publication of a report laid before Parliament on the impact on children of divorce or dissolution but it does not define what is meant in this context by “low conflict” and, for that matter, it does not define what would be meant by “no conflict” for this purpose. It is also not clear whether that could be achieved by pointing to existing academic research or whether the Government would need to conduct their own research, questioning parents during and after divorce about the nature of their relationship, or indeed questioning children, presumably only if of a suitable age, about their feelings and evaluating any impact on their life chances long into the future.

The very indefinite nature of such a report means that people who, on publication, would have wanted the report to have researched in one direction might find that it simply does not do so and does not assist them in that regard. Therefore, with great respect, we do not agree that the amendment would serve any useful purpose. It would not deter people from divorcing. Even if they read the report, they would be left considering their situation and that of their children, not that of a group of people who were the subject of research. For all those reasons, I invite the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment,.

Amendment 16, tabled by my noble friend Lord Farmer, would require statistical reporting every year beyond that which the Ministry of Justice currently publishes. It would not require what was referred to in Committee as the “demographics” of the parties in geographic locations, but it would still require the income of spouses and civil partners for each divorce or dissolution application, as explicitly stated in the amendment.

As I observed in Committee, the number of divorce applications, along with the gender of applicants, is already publicly available and is published under the Family Court Statistics Quarterly. However, with regard to income, we continue to be of the firm view that, aside from the burden on the courts of collecting that data about income, it would be an unwarranted intrusion on application of what is, in any event, a difficult time. We simply do not consider that there is a case to compel applicants, or indeed respondents, to supply such information. Indeed, it could mislead people into thinking that the court considered income relevant to the grant of the divorce.

The court will only properly require information about income in separate proceedings for financial provision orders, and we see no reason to draw that into the divorce process, which, if I may say so, is the mechanical process of ending the marriage. It will also only properly require information about children in separate proceedings for children’s orders, and, as I have said before, we do not consider that that should be drawn into the process of ending the marriage. Therefore, again, I invite my noble friend not to press that amendment.

I turn to Amendment 17, in the name of my noble friend Lord McColl of Dulwich. The Government are clear that divorce must be a last resort, and that is why we are retaining the requirement for people to confirm the intention to divorce at two further stages beyond the original application. It is also why we are building in a minimum of 20 weeks before people can apply for the conditional order—the first pronouncement from the court that the marriage is capable of being dissolved.

Some have told us that it is at that point in the existing process—the decree from the court—that the reality of divorce sinks in. However, evidence points to the prospect of reconciliation being very low. No divorce process should be automatic but it is simply the means to bring to an end a marriage that is already no longer functional after attempts to revive it have essentially been exhausted. Under the current process, about three in five people seeking divorce make allegations about their spouse’s behaviour or adultery. Having to give and receive allegations of an intensely personal nature can only sever the relationship further. I do not see that the current process is particularly conducive to repairing the relationship, and at such a late stage.

This amendment would result in a report which I suspect would satisfy no one. Some people may want to see evidence for whether more or fewer couples reconcile after our reforms are implemented, but that will mean waiting years for the report so that any longer-term trend can be assessed. Other people may want to see comparisons between the existing divorce processes internationally, but they differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, whether or not they are based on fault, and of course some jurisdictions have a hybrid process. The report envisaged in this amendment would not put an end to differing views about the evidence. I would also note that there is a difference between what is termed “scope for reconciliation”—that is, the theoretical possibility—and whether couples actually reconcile.

The Government have taken account of peer-reviewed academic sources in developing the proposals in this Bill, as has been noted by some noble Lords, but we are not just beholden to their conclusions. We have also taken into account what was said when we consulted on our proposals. The matter of this amendment is one for academic study and I fear that it would be fruitless for the Government to undertake it. For these reasons, I invite noble Lords not to press their amendments in this group.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and I am not at all surprised that there is evidence which suggests that reducing conflict is a good thing for children. Indeed, it would be surprising if it did not, and certainly it is not my purpose to argue for more conflict.

The purpose of the amendment has been simply to point out that there is other important research which suggests that reducing conflict beyond a certain level is unhelpful. The family impact assessment does not engage with this research and nothing the Minister has said in his response suggests that the Government have done so; in fact, far from it. However, it is important that the findings of this research are taken seriously in framing the Bill, so I hope that the matter will be picked up and pursued in the other place. In the circumstances, however, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 15 withdrawn.

Amendments 16 and 17 not moved.