Difference of opinion has emerged among family practitioners today over the government's bill seeking to make the divorce process less acrimonious, as MPs began taking a closer look at the proposed legislation.
Less than a month after lord chancellor David Gauke introduced the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill to the House of Commons, the bill reached committee stage today.
David Hodson, a member of the Law Society's family law committee, told MPs that Chancery Lane is keen to support no-fault divorce but is concerned about the bill's structure. 'We want the legislation to go through, we want no-fault divorce, but we believe the bill should be amended in a number of certain respects before it completes its passage through parliament,' he said.
The changes the Society would like 'are not substantial', Hodson said. 'They do not change the structure, they do not change the concept of a period over notice, they just try and protect the interest particularly of the so-called respondents, the sole petition where the person may not have fully been expecting a petition to come through'.
However, Nigel Shepherd, former chair of family law group Resolution, told MPs that he thought 'the bill has got it right at the moment'.
He said: 'I think we have a unique opportunity at the moment to get this over the line on the key principle of no-fault divorce. The purpose of the bill is that simplicity. We can deal with issues such as financial applications separately if we need to, and we can certainly discuss that. But what I wouldn't want to do is risk losing this opportunity for the sake of amendments that make it more complicated than it is.'
Asked about clause 6 of the bill, which gives the lord chancellor powers to amend primary legislation, Hodson said: 'There is an agreeable difference between the Law Society and Resolution. We would like to see any material changes to the expectation of the structure set out in primary legislation rather than secondary legislation. We are keen that the public at the end of this process as it goes through parliament, in either a few weeks - some of us think that's too rushed - or in a few months, when there's an opportunity for public debate, to understand what the divorce process is all about.'
MPs were told the Family Law Act 1996, which included provisions for no-fault divorce, ended up 'extremely complicated'.
Hodson said: '1996 did at least allow the public to have a discussion about what it was like. We're not having that discussion at the moment. Partly it's going through fairly quickly. Partly it hasn't got into the public arena. We would be very keen to say if the Ministry of Justice has any concerns about bringing any of these aspects forward, put them in the primary legislation.'
He said section 1 of the bill was difficult to read. 'It isn't a progressive process, it doesn't use straightforward language... When is the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage? I agree with Nigel that we don't want to clog [the bill] up, but there are some crucial elements here that should be brought into this legislation rather than, dare I say, Henry VIII-type powers.'