The Times

MONDAY DECEMBER 18 2000

The family way

Lord Irvine is right to be wary of no-fault divorce

The Times

Family policy has become a political minefield. Those who think the Government should take a neutral stance on personal relationships are attacked for undermining family values and the fabric of society; supporters of the traditional family risk alienating struggling single parents, many of whom have been bereaved or abandoned. Governments and the public still tend to agree that, in an ideal world, children fare better emotionally, physically and educationally in a stable two-parent home. But, other than the restoration of the married couple’s tax allowance, few politicians have any concrete proposals for boosting marriage. Meanwhile, in the real world, 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce.

If they cannot agree on how, or even whether, actively to promote marriage, pragmatism dictates that politicians should acknowledge that over-long, messy, expensive divorces help neither parents nor children. But the proposed solution of “no-fault” divorce has proved a political and practical nightmare since John Major’s Government passed the Family Law Act in 1996. The key section, giving legal grounding to the machinery of fault-free divorce, was due to be put into effect in 1998. But last year the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, announced that pilot schemes had been a failure and delayed its implementation. This week he is likely to abandon the controversial second part of the legislation altogether.

Most couples will be relieved at the decision to scrap compulsory “information meetings” for those contemplating divorce. Despite extensive and expensive trials they proved unsuccessful. Information was delivered in a standardised format that could not possibly reflect the uniquely personal circumstances of every marriage breakdown. Worse, as family lawyers confirm, most people think long and hard before opting for a divorce and the obligation to attend an intrusive meeting does nothing to change their minds.

The issue of fault itself is more worrying. A balancing act must somehow be struck between reducing strife on one hand and making sure on the other that those spouses who have behaved badly should never be exonerated in the interests of speed, cost savings or an “easy life”.

Whatever the moral dilemmas posed by the law, ministers are right to acknowledge that as it stands, the no-fault section is administratively unworkable. Amendments lengthen and complicate the process of divorce rather than shortening it. It is, as Paul Boateng said when he was shadow legal affairs spokesman, a “dog’s dinner”. A separate part of the Act, already in operation, which favours mediation over costly legal aid, is also ripe for reform. Public support for mediation remains low. Research has shown that husbands and wives continue to seek legal help even after mediation, increasing costs rather than reducing them. A Lord Chancellor serious about reform would rapidly add this flawed provision to his list of priorities.

If Lord Irvine does abandon the “no fault” framework this week, he will at least remove the State’s heavy hand from one area of divorce proceedings. Money wasted on compulsory meetings will instead be channelled into voluntary marriage counselling. More importantly, a review of the 1989 Children Act will put greater emphasis on ensuring that children are properly catered for before divorces can go ahead.

Sadly, marriages will not be saved by prolonging the agony of divorce. No-fault law did not live up to its name and couples and families will be better off without it.

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.