Examination of Witnesses

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

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Professor Liz Trinder and Mandip Ghai gave evidence.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak 10:15 am, 2nd July 2019

Good morning. May I ask the panel to introduce themselves for the record, please?

Professor Trinder:

I am Professor Liz Trinder from the University of Exeter.

Mandip Ghai:

I am Mandip Ghai, from the charity Rights of Women.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Q Does this Bill improve things for those who have been living in an environment of domestic abuse?

Professor Trinder:

Hugely, I would say. At the moment, probably about 20,000 petitioners are alleging domestic abuse in behaviour petitions. That is a very substantial number. I led the first major study of divorce law, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. One of the things we did was to talk to people who have been going through the process. Certainly, where there has been a background of domestic abuse, people had a strong sense of not wanting to inflame the situation or put themselves more at risk by alleging particulars of behaviour. About 20,000 petitions annually involve allegations of domestic abuse and not to have to put those allegations forward would put those petitioners, particularly women, in a much safer position.

Mandip Ghai:

We would agree with that. As part of my role at Rights of Women, I regularly advise survivors on our telephone advice lines. They have a real concern about issuing a divorce petition at all, and about the perpetrator’s reaction, but they have particular concerns if they are having to cite domestic abuse on the petition. The Bill will also, we hope, prevent perpetrators using the threat that they will defend petitions to try and control her or have the upper hand in negotiations about finances and children.

We also find, often, that if the perpetrator issues a divorce petition first, she has to agree to a divorce based on her unreasonable behaviour, when in fact the reason why the marriage broke down was his abuse towards her. We support the Bill.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Q Do you think we will see an increase in applications in this cohort of families, if the process is easier?

Professor Trinder:

I dispute the concept that it would be easier. I echo Nigel Shepherd’s point that it would be kinder. There is absolutely no reason why there would be a significant increase. In effect, the Bill just changes the way irretrievable breakdown is evidenced, by removing the need to present allegations that may or may not be true. What we may see—it happened in Scotland and other jurisdictions—is that there will be a temporary increase or spike in the number of divorces that are being brought forward. The law would not cause an increase in relationship breakdown; what it would do is enable people who are waiting for two years, sometimes five years, who are in a queue already because their marriage has broken down, to move on with their lives, sort out permanent agreements for their children and resolve money issues without having that long wait.

Mandip Ghai:

For survivors who are thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, the point of separation is often the most dangerous time for them. There are lots of things they are thinking about, not just his reaction to the divorce. The Bill would just be one thing that would hopefully help her leave the abusive situation.

Photo of Rosie Duffield Rosie Duffield Labour, Canterbury

To expand that, parties will still have to wait a year before applying. In your opinions, is there a danger that that will exacerbate any existing abuseQ ?

Professor Trinder:

That is a difficult issue, about which we have thought a lot. In general, the Bill very helpfully places responsibility for determining whether a marriage has broken down on the parties. In almost all instances, it is entirely up to the parties to determine whether the relationship has broken down and make that declaration. My only reservation with the one-year marriage bar is that it possibly has a symbolic importance to Members here. If the threat of removing the bar were to jeopardise the progress of the Bill, then I would not support it. Part of the reason for my making that statement is that there is not much evidence for needing to remove the bar.

In our study, we looked at a nationally representative sample of 300 undefended cases. Only four of those were brought within year two—months 12 to 24. Only one was brought in the 13th month, as soon as it was legally possible to bring those proceedings. Numerically, the size of the population is small. In those four cases we also looked at what the case was about: why the marriage had come to such a precipitate end, whether it was domestic abuse, and whether it was women trying to flee an abusive relationship. None of those cases involved domestic abuse. That is not to say that there would not be domestic abuse survivors wanting to leave a marriage soon, but the numbers are very small and divorce in itself is not a protective measure.

There is the potential for nullity in the case of a forced marriage. Non-molestation occupation orders would be a solution. In any case, women would be in a better position in that, although they would have to wait 18 months, they would not have to disclose particulars of behaviour.

Mandip Ghai:

We would obviously want survivors to be able to end an abusive marriage as soon as possible. We would agree with the one-year bar if concerns about it were going to derail the Bill: looking specifically at the impact on survivors, there is not enough evidence. I would also want some evidence on the impact it would have on migrant women and migrant survivors. I do not have enough information on that at the moment. There is also the issue of the potential impact on immigration status if someone’s stay is dependent on their relationship with the abuser. We do have concerns about the one-year bar, but we would agree on that if it was going to derail the Bill.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Q Is there some evidence that changes of the type proposed by this legislation would lead to an increase in the number of divorces? I am reading a couple of cases here. Leora Friedberg found in her research that unilateral divorce laws were responsible for about 17% of the increase in divorce rates in the US during the 1970s and 1980s. Research across Europe by Libertad González and Tarja K. Viitanen found that

“reforms that “made divorce easier” were followed by significant increases in divorce rates” and, moreover, that the effect of the move towards no-fault divorce laws seemed “permanent”. Is there research suggesting that we could see not just a spike in divorce but a continuation of increased divorce levels?

Professor Trinder:

No.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

So those two things that I quoted are unfounded or not relevant?

Professor Trinder:

There is a large number of academic studies, as you would imagine.

Professor Trinder:

There is a large number of academic studies looking at the relationship between divorce rates and divorce law in a range of jurisdictions. You can always find one or two studies that will be outliers, particularly from the United States where there are aligned researchers. The strong message from the consensus of academic opinion is that there is no relationship between the substantive divorce law and divorce rates. The paper by Libertad González that you reference clearly said that procedural changes can have an impact on divorce rates, not the substantive law. If you look at our law, we have fault. Of all divorces, 60% or so are proceeding on fault. They will all get through. Fault is not a bar to achieving a divorce at all.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Q What do the public think about whether we should maintain fault? Has any research suggested that the public are happy with the idea of there being fault?

Professor Trinder:

It depends on how you ask the great British public, and how it is put.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Q Here it states that the Government’s own consultation found that a mere 17% of respondents agreed with proposals to replace the five facts with a notification process, and 80% were against it. Is that incorrect?

Professor Trinder:

No, I think those are the accurate figures from the Ministry of Justice. The MOJ launched a consultation and the vast bulk of responses were supportive of the proposals. A small evangelical Christian organisation then e-mailed all its members, and there was a flood of responses.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Q Are responses from evangelical Christians not valid?

Professor Trinder:

No, they are valid.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Q Why did you mention it then?

Professor Trinder:

They are valid as the views of evangelical Christians, but they are not a valid representation of the British public. In opinion surveys by YouGov, a majority of the population are supportive of the specific reforms and the removal of fault entirely. In the main, evangelical Christians are not supportive of the reforms, but the public in general are, and that is much more persuasive to me.

Mandip Ghai:

The problem with relying just on statistics is that that does not include various sections of society, such as survivors of domestic abuse, who probably did not respond to that consultation. They probably did not know about it, or may not have felt confident enough to respond to the consultation.

Photo of Eddie Hughes Eddie Hughes Conservative, Walsall North

Q Why would you make that assumption? Why would they not know about the consultation and why would they not respond? On what basis do you make that case?

Mandip Ghai:

When we spoke to people on our advice line, they did not know about it. I am basing it on my experience of speaking to survivors on our telephone advice lines. The reality for those women who we hear on our advice lines and who are going through the divorce process is that they find having to state the behaviour particularly difficult. From our experience, removing the fault-based system would help them to get through the divorce process in a safer way.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Labour, Great Grimsby

Q Is there evidence that demonstrates clearly that no-fault divorces are any less damaging to children than divorces in general? Regardless of whether fault and blame are apportioned, it is still a traumatic event for families, and it involves changed circumstances. We do not have this provision here, but could you point us towards something from north of the border or overseas that suggests that it would definitely ease the anguish of families in that situation?

Professor Trinder:

Just now I mentioned that 60% of divorces in England and Wales were based on fault. North of the border in Scotland it is 6% to 7%. Are we, south of the border, so much more badly behaved in marriages than the Scots? [Laughter.]Again, it’s a game. The system is gamed, and the law currently incentivises conflict, because the only way to get a divorce within a reasonable time is to make allegations of fault. It is more likely that 50% of divorces are about behaviour because you do not need an admission, as you do with adultery. In the surveys that we ran as part of our study, that was much more likely to cause difficulties in sorting out child arrangements and to mean contested financial proceedings. The point is that divorces are going to be incredibly stressful and, in many cases, conflictual. The problem is that the law adds needlessly to that conflict. The fault process is a routine and a legal charade that adds nothing. Through allegations and seeing behaviour in black and white, it can derail couples who are managing their divorce reasonably well. It can derail things in a way that adds nothing to the process, and is just a needless problem that does not need to be there.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Q Do you have anything to add?

Mandip Ghai:

I agree with that. Lots of research shows that it is harmful for children to live in a family in which there is domestic abuse, so anything that helps survivors of domestic abuse to separate and leave that situation would prevent any further harm to children, caused by witnessing domestic abuse.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

Professor Trinder, I just want to pick up a point that you mentioned about international research and evidence from countries with similar legal jurisdictions as to whether no-fault divorce leads to an increase in divorce. You mentioned the United States, but what is there in New Zealand, Canada and Australia, in particular? Can you help us with that?Q

Professor Trinder:

Most of the research exploring the relationship between divorce rates and divorce law has been from North America and Europe. I cannot think of anything from Australia and New Zealand, but their approach has been—

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

Q So is there an absence of research from countries with similar legal jurisdictions? The United States is similar, but it is not that close. The closest are the ones that I have mentioned.

Professor Trinder:

In the United States, each state has completely different laws. Australia and New Zealand are different in that they have had separation divorce. In Australia, the only ground is a one-year separation, which has been in place since 1967. We did a comparative study as part of the research and really struggled to find Australian and New Zealand respondents, academics or experts, because there is just no research on the grounds for divorce. It is just not an issue because the reform took place so long ago and that is just how things are.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

Q How do their divorce rates compare with ours?

Professor Trinder:

They are very similar. It is also worth noting that the divorce rate between England, Wales and Scotland is almost identical, yet we have 60% fault, while Scotland has 6% to 7%. Fault is not influencing the divorce rate at all. That makes sense because divorces are granted in England and Wales and, with the exception of Mrs Owens, fault is not a barrier at all.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Labour, Great Grimsby

Q Mrs Owens’ case brought this to prominence in recent years. How many other such cases have there been that I may have missed?

Professor Trinder:

It is extremely unusual. About 2% of divorces in England and Wales intend to defend. Most of those cannot actually continue with that, and only about a dozen out of 100,000 cases go to a fully contested trial each year. Owens is the only case that we are aware of in the last two decades in which the decree has been refused. We also looked at defended cases and had a sample of 74, and none of those were upheld. It is worth noting that in those defended cases, most of them were not defences of the marriage. It was not somebody saying, “No, I don’t believe that my marriage has broken down.” Mostly, they were triggered by the law itself. People were objecting to the allegations of behaviour made against them, including what appear to be perpetrators who defended allegations of quite serious domestic abuse. Because the court tries to settle cases, rather than go to a fully contested hearing, what happened typically was that the particulars were stripped out, so the line went through references to very serious assaults and they were removed from the particulars.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis Conservative, Banbury

You heard the evidence from the previous panel about a barrier to divorce being the cost of the fee. Is that something you have any evidence for or opinion onQ ?

Mandip Ghai:

Yes, I would agree with that. Obviously, fee exemptions are available, but lots of people will not fall within the criteria to be exempt from the fee and will not be able to pay the £550. For survivors particularly, the option of sharing the fee with the respondent is not there, and even if she is able to get a costs order from the court to say that the respondent has to pay the court fee, usually he does not pay—

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis Conservative, Banbury

Q So is the exemption system not working?

Mandip Ghai:

Not yet. For a lot of people, it is not working.

Professor Trinder:

I would add that we had interviewees in our sample who had been saving up for their divorce over several years. A couple of years ago, the fee went up from I think £410 to £550, literally overnight, and this man was in tears describing how he then had to start saving again. His divorce was almost in his grasp, after he had saved for several years, and then again taken away. The fees are very high—internationally, they are very high—and they are unaffordable for many people.

Photo of Paul Maynard Paul Maynard The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

Q Thank you both for your evidence so far. For the benefit of the wider Committee, will you set out some specific examples, where there is coercion and control in a relationship, of how the current process facilitates that coercion and control?

Mandip Ghai:

Some of it has been mentioned already. Professor Liz Trinder has already mentioned how defending divorce petitions can be used as a tactic. One other thing that we find—I disagree with the previous panel, one of whom suggested that the time period of 20 weeks should start from service—is that sometimes perpetrators will avoid service, deliberately not responding to the petition even though they have received it, or avoiding being served with it, as a way to try to control the applicant and stop her from proceeding with the divorce. They might suggest that they will consent to the petition proceeding, or accept service, if she agrees not to make any financial claims or agrees various things related to children.

Professor Trinder:

I agree absolutely with that. Defence is a very stark example; you get respondents defending—causing huge distress to and huge financial costs for the petitioner—not because they believe that the marriage is repairable or saveable but because they simply want to control the other party. Looking at the case files, there are very clear examples of that, so the removal of that ability to continue to control the petitioner in that way is a really welcome future from the Bill.

Mandip Ghai:

The other way, which I mentioned earlier, is that sometimes the perpetrator will issue the divorce petition first to prevent her starting divorce proceedings based on his behaviour.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

If there are no further questions, I thank the witnesses for their evidence. Thank you. That brings us to the end of our oral session today. The Committee will meet again this afternoon to begin our line-by-line scrutiny of the Bill. Note that we will be in Committee Room 9 at 2 o’clock.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Matt Warman.)

Adjourned till this day at Two o’clock.