The Times

MONDAY DECEMBER 18 2000

Irvine will scrap 'no fault' divorce

BY FRANCES GIBB, LEGAL EDITOR
The Times

THE Lord Chancellor is expected to announce this week that he is scrapping reforms that would have enabled married couples to obtain a “no fault” divorce.

Lord Irvine of Lairg has decided not to proceed with the main plank of the ill-fated Family Law Act 1996 after research has shown it to be unworkable and likely, if implemented, to cost up to £50 million a year.

Now ministers are expected to announce plans to strengthen support for families andmarriage, including an enhanced role for marriage registrars in counselling couples. Couples would have more time to reflect before they marry, with both parties attending the register office to make the first arrangement. Marriage counselling and support services would also be boosted.

At the same time, a current review of the Children Act 1989 is likely to lead to stronger powers for courts to refuse divorces where arrangements for children are not in place.

The 1996 Family Law Act liberalised divorce by allowing couples to obtain a termination of their marriage without the need to cite adultery or some other fault-based ground. Divorce would be granted after one year or 18 months in the case of children, provided the couple had first sorted out arrangements over both children and money.

The reforms were one of the last acts of John Major’s Government. But the original plans for “no fault” divorce were criticised by traditionalists who said that they weakened marriage.

The result was a series of concessions which, according to lawyers, have made the package unworkable. The key concession, which has now forced the Lord Chnacellor to rethink the whole idea, was a new compulsory information meeting for all people wanting to start a divorce.

The idea was that a meeting would identify “saveable marriages” and steer couples who were uncertain to counselling. Those who did want to take part would be encouraged to use mediation services, rather than lawyers. But research has found that the meetings served only to reinforce in people’s minds the need for legal advice and the need to consult a lawyer.

It has been estimated that it could cost between £40 million and £50 million to arrange information meetings for everyone who gets divorced, money which could be better spent on support and counselling.

Last year Lord Irvine announced that he was shelving the reforms for one year, pending the final outcome of research findings. The Family Law Act, which amounted to the biggest reform of divorce laws for decades, has been the butt of widespread criticism despite wide support for its aim of removing some of the bitterness from divorce. The Labour minister Paul Boateng, when he was opposition legal affairs spokesman, condemned it as a “dog’s dinner”.

Ministers have been nervous about proceeding with implementation of its main provisions, but equally there is concern that to leave a key reform passed by Parliament unimplemented may lay them open to legal challenge.

Mark Harper, a member of the Law Society family law committee, said that the law as passed was clearly unworkable but that scrapping the no-fault plan was bad news for divorcing couples. “No-fault divorce would reduce unnecessary bitterness and antagonism which exists under the current law by having to make up allegations of unreasonable behaviour.”

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.