The government is not trying to push through a ‘quickie divorce bill’, the lord chancellor has insisted, as legislation to reform the divorce process moved one step closer to becoming law.
The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, which has been designed to remove what the government has called ‘needless antagonism’, passed a second reading in the Commons last night. However, the house was unusually divided – Labour welcomed the bill, while 12 of the 16 objections came from Conservative MPs.
Current law requires spouses to evidence at least one of five 'facts': adultery, behaviour, desertion, two years' separation (if the other spouse consents to the divorce), or five years' separation (if the other spouse disagrees). The bill will replace the requirement to evidence conduct or separation 'fact' with the provision of a statement of irretrievable breakdown. The possibility of contesting the decision to divorce will be removed. The court will be able to make a conditional order after 20 weeks has passed from the start of proceedings.
Conservative MP Sir Edward Leigh said the bill was part of a ‘liberal agenda’ and ‘the message we are sending out tonight is that we are engaged in making quickie divorces easier’.
Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, a solicitor, said: ‘There is likely to be an immediate increase in divorces - a spike that could last for a decade or more. People experiencing marital difficulties in the coronavirus crisis may be more likely to bail out following the introduction of no-fault divorce, under the impression that divorce is being made easier. Some of those marriages may well be saveable.’
However, shadow justice secretary David Lammy said Labour welcomed the bill. ‘The new law will allow and promote conciliation and compromise. That will be of real help for families and children of broken relationships. Importantly, it will reduce legal costs that can quickly reach eye-watering sums, quite unnecessarily,’ he said. However, he stressed the need for investment in legal aid, as cuts meant more people were acting as litigants in person, which could make the divorce process even more stressful.
Buckland repeatedly said the legislation was not a ‘quickie divorce bill’.
He said: ‘This is not about blame or guilt; it is about acknowledging the fact that the causes of divorce are very complex and will evolve often over a long period of time… Indeed, the limitations of the court process are not particularly well understood by the public. Under existing law, the legal fact that many people choose as their route to divorce bears little resemblance to the reality of why a marriage has broken down.’
Family lawyers were quick to respond to criticisms raised last night.
Graham Coy, a partner at Wilsons, said: ‘This is not “divorce on demand” as some critics have claimed but a sensible move to allow adults to end marriages that were not working without having to enter into a painful round of blame and, sometimes, mud-slinging.’
Philip Cooper, a partner at the London office of JMW Solicitors, said fears of a spike in divorce cases are misplaced. ‘People do not take divorce proceedings lightly, irrespective of the law. They only go ahead with divorce when they are certain that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, and all avenues aimed at repairing it have already been explored,’ he said.