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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Nigel Shepherd:

The short answer is that the average time that court officials—this is now mostly done by legal advisers in regional divorce centres—have to scrutinise the evidence is four minutes per case, broadly. Although current legislation says that the court has a duty to investigate the situation as far as is reasonably practicable, the reality is that our process does not allow that to happen at all. If a petition goes in on behaviour, and it is not defended, the legal advisers looking at it are simply checking to make sure that the jurisdictional grounds are correct, and that there is the necessary legal connection between the behaviour and the breakdown—in other words, that the boxes are correctly ticked.

There is no investigation and, what is worse, if the respondent to that petition writes five pages on why it is all untrue, if it is not formally defended with an answer and a fee paid of £200, it is ignored. That is the worst of all worlds, because respondents, particularly those without the benefit of legal advice, think that they are saying that they disagree with something about the petition, but that nobody is listening. That makes it even worse. There is no realistic scrutiny at all in the system. It is impractical to have that scrutiny, because who knows really what goes on behind the closed doors of a marriage? That is why this change is fundamentally so important; it means that there is no pretence anymore. It is intellectually dishonest at the moment; that is what Sir James Munby said in the Court of Appeal in the case of Owens. We would be getting rid of that dishonesty and acrimony at the start of the process.