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Overdue divorce law changes: no more delays, please

Date:18 APR 2019
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Chief Executive, NFM

The recent announcement of the Government’s intention to change the legal position surrounding divorce had the sniff of ‘rehashed news’ around it, especially to those of us involved in the divorce industry.

As long-time campaigners for the introduction of no-fault divorce, the changes are music to National Family Mediation ears. But the fact they are coming has been well-known for some considerable time.

There was definitely the sense that ministers were keen to talk about anything other than Brexit, and who’d be surprised! News editors lapped it up, hungry to report on a domestic agenda item – something that relates directly to the lives of people reading and viewing their content. So headlines were written, interviews given, phone-ins created.

At NFM we are under no illusion that the plans can only be a good thing. There is, of course, opposition to measures that will make obtaining a divorce in an unhappy marriage simpler and less stressful to achieve.

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The Centre for Social Justice was amongst the dissenting voices, accusing ministers of “focusing political attention on an institution that is apparently no longer particularly relevant.” Some of the reservations expressed by the CSJ remain valid, but the true relevance of the planned changes is that, once implemented, couples who have decided to separate will be able to make their fresh start without unnecessary complications.

The current legal need to prove a spouse’s ‘unreasonable behaviour’ fuels bad feeling. Our experience is that couples who, for whatever reason, have decided to separate just want to get on with it and make a fresh start. Yet current laws where someone has to tick a box to show ‘fault’ mean cases that should be relatively simple instead escalate to full-blown courtroom battles, which help nobody - least of all the children involved. For each and every adult involved, the stress, time and expense involved is staggering, and this vital change should help many more parents settle their divorce or separation in a more mature and adult fashion than the current system allows.

The mid-April news story was hung on a statement from the Secretary of State, with perhaps the most telling clause coming in the final line of the MOJ’s press release: “The new legislation is expected to be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.” And there’s the potential problem.

This article has already mentioned the B word once, and here it comes again… These long overdue changes to divorce laws could easily become another victim of the Brexit backlog. The UK has its extension but who in reality honestly expects that when parliamentarians return from their Easter break, they’ll be able to get any closer to agreeing the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU?

The long-running discussions about the process underpinning the UK’s divorce from the EU must not be allowed to delay these new laws. My current fear is the overdue legislation will become still more overdue as a result of the parliamentary timetable continuing to be log-jammed.

Brexit delays cannot be allowed to stop tens of thousands of couples who want to divorce being able to get on with it relatively painlessly, now that ministers have set out plans to change the law. The move can also signal a start of reducing the current estimated £50 billion cost to the public purse of poorly managed relationship breakdown. Let us hope they get on with it, and fast.