It’s time to reform divorce law and end the ‘blame game’ that blights family breakdown
Now Parliament wasn’t prorogued, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill should be passed without delay, writes Bob Neill MP
Had the purported prorogation of Parliament actually gone ahead, one consequence, as was pointed out to the Supreme Court, would have been the loss of 13 government bills yet to complete their progress through the Commons and Lords. Now that, in consequence of the court’s ruling, we know that the session will continue (although for how long still remains unclear), the Government should swiftly commit to pressing on to compete the passage of at least some of those bills without delay.
The pressing problems these pieces of legislation sought to address, from domestic violence to animal cruelty, cannot be put on hold. The Government, to its credit, had already committed to reinstating the Domestic Abuse Bill in a proposed Queen’s Speech but now it does not have to wait that long. The same approach should be also extended to the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, which seeks to enshrine in law the concept of no-fault divorce.
As a piece of legislation, it’s not without its difficulties for many Conservatives. A large number of our membership are people of faith and, as a party that believes strongly in the importance and intrinsic value of family life, we have always placed a great emphasis on marriage. Indeed, it is a question I have wrestled with myself, both as a practising Anglican who regards marriage as a sacrament and legal contract, and as a former barrister who, for a time, practised in family law.
As it stands, divorce is only allowed when a marriage has broken down irretrievably. A court cannot hold that it has done so until at least one of five ‘facts’ has been satisfied: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, or two or five years’ separation, depending on whether the divorce is agreed to by both parties or not.
By being so restrictive, and not recognising that many marriages sadly fail simply because a couple have increasingly drifted apart, this process incentivises the apportion of blame or exaggerated allegations of fault to speed up the divorce.
In doing so, it manufactures conflict, making the system needlessly antagonistic and confrontational, not just for the individuals immediately involved, but also for their friends and families, including children.
That hostility all too often then spills into the subsequent proceedings, notably in the negotiations over arrangements for children or finances, which also, in turn, frequently adds cost and delay in court time. The truth is many of these problems would be better resolved from the outset through a form of mediation.
But there is a laudable social cause behind reform, too. It can be deeply destructive – and one might even argue, not of itself actually terribly Christian in the truest sense of the term – to artificially prolong a marriage when it has moved beyond the point of repair.
In fact, research consistently shows that the trauma from parental conflict has a far greater link to social and behavioural problems among children than divorce itself.
The current system is also liable to prolonging harm in the context of domestic abuse, in some cases trapping vulnerable women in deeply unhappy and too often abusive and dangerous relationships due to a fear that attributing blame will lead to repercussions.
It is for all these reasons that the legislation has received the overwhelming support of practitioners, including 90% of family lawyers.
After 50 years, it’s time we grasped the nettle, amending an outmoded law that drives people to invent allegations and lie in court. This isn’t seeking to make divorce easier – indeed, it would increase the minimum period of reflection to 20 weeks – but is about mitigating, as far as is possible, the emotional upheaval of separation.
Without change, couples will continue to be stuck between Scylla and Charybdis, forced to either hurl blame at each other or wait in limbo for two years, making the recovery process harder.
As Sir Paul Coleridge, a former High Court judge in the Family Division and chair of the Marriage Foundation, recently remarked: “An intelligent process to end unsustainable marriage is good for the reinvigoration of the most important social arrangement yet devised for mankind.”
That strikes me as an eminently sensible basis for a pragmatic and reformist party to proceed upon.
Bob Neill is Conservative MP for Bromley & Chislehurst and chair of the justice committee
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