Examination of Witnesses

Part of Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:28 am on 2nd July 2019.

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David Hodson:

Would it be helpful if I explained one of the primary concerns of the Law Society? It relates to the respondent—forgive me for using that language; the person receiving a sole petition. When does the 26-week period run? At the moment, under this legislation, it runs when the petitioner—again, forgive me for using the old-fashioned language—sends the petition to the court. When it is served, it is served through a period of notice, and there are service provisions. The legislation intends for the 26 weeks to run from that date, but the respondent may get it weeks—sometimes many weeks—later, because there are delays at the court; I do not make any further points on that, but it may take weeks, sometimes longer, for it to be issued. If somebody is abroad, the period of service may be longer. There may be a need to find the person.

In our opinion, we have fairly arbitrary, unfair, discriminatory provisions for the respondent spouse, who, we must remember, may not know this is coming. There may not have been a letter before action. They may be surprised to know how seriously the other spouse was thinking of ending the marriage—“Oh, I didn’t realise it was such a bad state that they would issue a divorce petition.” Perhaps they are not living together and the person has to be found.

It is wrong and, we believe, quite unfair for some spouses to have 24 or 20 weeks, and others to have 15 weeks, if it takes longer to serve. One of the fundamental elements of what the Law Society wants is to make it clear that the 26 weeks—if that is what Parliament deems is the right and appropriate period—run not only for the petitioner who issues the petition, but for all respondents, from the date they receive it.

The Ministry of Justice consultation period ums and ahs—my words, not theirs—as to whether the period should run from the date of the start of proceedings or the date of service, and in the end has eventually come down on the date of the start of proceedings, but they admit there is good reason for it to be from the date of service. It has to be from the date of service; otherwise, it is grossly unfair, and we are creating a law where some respondents have 24 or 23 weeks. That cannot possibly be right. If Parliament decrees that we should have a divorce after 26 weeks’ notice, that should not be the notice given by one spouse; it should be the notice received by the other. When we talk about whether to have clause 6, that is one of the fundamental elements that we say should be debated and discussed in this forum, and more publicly, to see how we feel about respondents having far less than 26 weeks.