Removing the need for one party to take responsibility for marriage breakdown would make divorce more harmonious.
The recent call to introduce blame-free divorces is a breath of fresh air, eradicating the Dickensian approach we currently adopt which can make an amicable divorce process almost impossible.
The proposal is among sweeping changes proposed in a manifesto which has been presented by Resolution, an organisation representing 6,500 family lawyers and other family law professionals. I have been a member since the early days and currently chair the South Yorkshire group.
In my time as a family lawyer, I have witnessed over and over again how stressful and irritating it is for my clients to be forced into a divorce based on ‘fault’. This is because the current system demands that unless couples have been living apart for two years, one of them needs to apportion some form of blame, adultery or unreasonable behaviour in order to divorce.
Such a process often creates conflict and makes reaching a mutually acceptable agreement on any issue much more difficult. By eliminating the need for one party to take the responsibility for the breakdown of the marriage, securing a harmonious, as opposed to an acrimonious, termination to the relationship becomes easier to achieve.
The six-point manifesto also confirms that families undergoing divorce are not receiving the support they desperately need, and highlights the effect of legal aid cuts and major changes to service providers such as Child Maintenance Service (CMS), which have increased the risk of some families living in poverty and being unable to access legal services.
I champion Resolution’s call for a parenting charter, a document making clear what separating couples need to do to keep the interests of their children at the forefront of their thinking. However, I’m less convinced that the plan to provide basic rights for cohabiting couples who separate would work because of the myriad of complexities in defining the boundaries of an unmarried relationship.
Having said that, any kind of legal framework of rights and responsibilities to provide some legal protection and secure fair outcomes at the time of a couple’s separation, or on the death of one partner, is a positive move.
The remaining points in the manifesto centre on helping people to understand how their divorce will affect their future finances – and on introducing measures to help separating couples reach agreement out of court. Currently, only mediation is seen as an alternative to court, which I deem to be a very short-sighted view because there are many other options available, including empowering both parties to reach an agreement between themselves.
Anyone who has been through the trauma of a divorce knows that the most desirable outcome is one that minimises conflict and encourages couples to reach a mutually beneficial resolution. Unfortunately, our current system is not structured to always support that aim.
Change is needed, but comes at both a financial and emotional cost. However, I believe that only when we start to make the latter a higher priority than the former will we have a legal system which supports those who are most in need – and reflects the evolving demographics of today’s modern families.
Vanessa Fox is the Sheffield chair of Resolution and a partner at hlw Keeble Hawson