The Independent

Government abandons law allowing 'no fault divorce'

By Robert Verkaik, Legal Affairs Correspondent
The Independent
17 January 2001

Laws intended to allow "no fault" divorces were scrapped by the Government yesterday. The announcement means couples who want to divorce in less than two years will have to continue to prove adultery, unreasonable behaviour or one of the other three grounds for ending a marriage.

The no-fault divorce legislation, introduced in 1996, had been criticised for making divorce too easy and undermining the institution of marriage.

Yesterday's decision was immediately attacked by lawyers and marriage counsellors in favour of the new legislation. They accused Labour of helping to promote a climate of acrimonious divorce.

However, the Government said it was not convinced "that removing fault grounds will substantially influence the way parties conduct themselves throughout the divorce process".

A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor's Department added: "The reduction of acrimony and the adoption of a more conciliatory approach to divorce may require a cultural change beyond the realms of legislation."

Rosemary Carter, chairman of the Solicitors Family Law Association, said: "Why should people have to conspire together to invent behavioural grounds for divorce?"

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, in a written answer to a question in the House of Lords, blamed the complexity of the Family Law Act part II and ongoing problems with the information meetings which couples would have to attend before being granted legal aid for their divorce proceedings.

Research commissioned by the Lord Chancellor's Department found that instead of encouraging couples to seek a mediated settlement these meetings were pushing them towards the courts.

At present a "no fault" divorce can be obtained after two years, if both parties consent, or otherwise after five years. But two thirds of divorcing couples still opt for a fault-based divorce, whichcan be obtained in six months.

Thelma Fisher, chairwoman of the UK College of Family Mediators, said she was saddened by the decision as no-fault divorce was a "good background" to help couples resolve issues between them.

Ms Carter said the Government had been "burnt" by the Conservatives' family law legislation, which she described as a "a dog's breakfast".

But Lord Irvine said the Government still wanted to "save saveable marriages". He told Parliament: "The Government is committed to supporting marriage and to supporting families when relationships fail, especially when there are children involved."

Significantly he said it was not just the complexity of the Family Law Act and the difficulties encountered during the information meetings which had led him to decide to ask Parliament to repeal part II of the Act. This was later confirmed as a reference to the no-fault proposals in the Act. He was able to use the results of the information meetings pilot scheme to free himself from legislation that he inherited from his predecessor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

The pilot schemes were launched in June 1997 and completed in June 1999 when Lord Irvine confirmed that the preliminary results were disappointing. The final evaluation report was presented to the Lord Chancellor by the Newcastle Centre for Family Studies in September 2000.

The Government said it will now build on the evidence provided by research to consider how best to provide for families experiencing relationship difficulties.

Lord Irvine said: "The Government has taken forward a wide range of measures over the past three years to help families, including establishing the new Children's Fund and the Children and Family Courts Advisory and Support Service, improving maternity and parental leave arrangements, and increasing funding for marriage and relationship support to a total of £5m per annum by 2002-2003."