Marriage is one of our most important and valued institutions, and no one wants a marriage or civil partnership to break down. However, when one unfortunately does, the law should minimise the harm that can arise from the legal process. The latter should neither incentivise conflict nor make it worse where it already exists. Hence, this Bill will deliver much needed reform by removing the conflict flashpoints inherent within the current legal process. This is particularly important for any children, whose life chances are improved where the conditions are laid for co-operative and positive parenting relationships into the future.
The Bill, which extends to England and Wales, retains the sole ground for divorce of irretrievable breakdown. However, it will replace the current requirement to prove either a conduct or separation ‘fact’, with a requirement to file a statement of irretrievable breakdown. This reform removes the need either to make allegations about the other spouse’s conduct or to live apart for two or even five years. In addition, where the decision to divorce is a mutual one, the Bill gives couples the option of making a joint statement of irretrievable breakdown. The Bill will also remove the possibility of contesting the decision to divorce, as a statement of irretrievable breakdown made by one spouse will be conclusive evidence that the marriage has broken down.
Once a spouse has decided to seek a divorce, the current law does not set any minimum overall timescale for the legal process obtaining a divorce. However, under this Bill, a new minimum period of 20 weeks will apply between the start of proceedings and when confirmation can be given to the court that the conditional order may be made. Together with the existing six-week period, this will mean that the legal process for obtaining a divorce under the new process will take a minimum of 26 weeks (six months). It is estimated that, under the Bill, on average 80% of divorces will take longer than under existing law, after taking account of the projected impact from the take-up of the streamlined digitised divorce service. This therefore brings an end to any suggestion of ‘quickie divorce’. Our proposals therefore allow time for the applicant (or joint applicants together) to consider the implications of the decision to divorce.
Divorce will always be one of the hardest decisions anyone has to take. Divorce brings far-reaching effects on children, on the wider family and on other relationships. No law can ever prevent or remove conflict at a time of great personal and family upheaval. What the law can do is to minimise the potential for couples to entrench positions against each other, and to encourage couples who have been unable to reconcile to approach arrangements for the future as constructively and cooperatively as possible, reducing conflict and its impact on children.
I did not vote against the Second Reading of this Bill.
The Bill went into committee and was passed at third reading on on 17 June without opposition and therefore by the whole House without a vote.