Back in March, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill saw its first reading in the House of Commons (HoC). It has now reached its second reading, with cross-party support, and backing from both the public and judiciary.
If passed, the Bill will mean that couples seeking divorce no longer need to prove “irretrievable breakdown” as outlined in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. This will effectively eliminate the “blame game” in divorce hearings.
Resolution, a collective of family lawyers and other professionals, argue that the proposed legislation will significantly reduce conflict in the divorce process. The group is supported by both senior judges and legal charities.
Despite this, it has been forecast that the reading today will be faced with a Conservative backbench rebellion, with some MPs arguing that the legislation will lead to “quickie divorces”.
The Bill which is hoped to pass within the next few days, removes the requirement for a spouse to prove one of five statutory ‘facts,’ for a divorce to go ahead. This includes adultery and unreasonable behaviour.
The progressive Bill also prevents a spouse from contesting a divorce petition. Additionally, it introduces a twenty-week waiting period from the commencement of divorce proceeding to the decree nisi or ‘conditional order’.
Over the years, the current legislation has been criticised by family law solicitors, and judges alike for creating unnecessary division between couples. This can escalate conflict which can be unhelpful for decision making related to children and finance.
Resolution, a community made up of 6,500 family justice professionals has specifically been campaigning for the Bill to pass its second reading.
Reflecting on the negative impacts of the legislation, the group conducted a survey of its members. It discovered that 9 out of 10 members found that current legislation complicates divorce proceedings and exacerbates conflict between couples.
Further to this, the group’s findings revealed that 67% found the legislation makes it more difficult for parents to reach “amicable” decisions over childcare. Meanwhile, 80% believed that the proposed “no-fault” legislation would lead to more separating couples reaching agreements out of court.
Despite evidence suggesting the Bill will significantly improve divorce proceedings, a number of Conservative MPs have challenged the legislation. Sir John Hayes, Sir Desmond Swayne and Fiona Bruce, are forecast to rebel against the legislation, and argue that the Bill will cause an “immediate ‘spike’ in divorce rates”. This statement follows figures released by legal advice firm Co-op Legal Services. It revealed that there had been more than a 40% jump in divorce inquiries since the lockdown was enacted.
On top of this, these MPs argue that the proposals were not included within the Conservative manifesto and were “sprung” on them. To extinguish a rebellion, they propose that the period couples must wait for a divorce to be granted should be extended from six to nine months.
In a letter addressed to 200 Conservative MPs, seen by The Telegraph, the MPs criticised the timing of the bill and said that it undermined “the commitment of marriage”.
Further to this, they wrote: “Our constituents are currently experiencing the greatest social upheaval since the Second World War, with many otherwise durable marriages and civil partnerships under intense Covid-related strain”. They added: “This law sends a destabilising and deeply insensitive signal which will be amplified by these intensely troubled times and it should be dropped now.”
Despite some Conservative MPs claiming that there is no public support for the Bill, evidence suggests the contrary. A YouGov poll from 2019, found that in fact 73% of the public endorsed the Bill. Moreover, another YouGov poll commissioned by Resolution found that 71% believed the Bill is required “urgently” to safeguard the “long-term interests of children”.
Meanwhile, the Bill has also garnered support from a number of senior judges. This includes Sir James Munby, former President of the Family Division, who stated that current legislation is steeped in “hypocrisy and a lack of intellectual honesty”.
Agreeing with this sentiment, one of the UK’s leading family lawyers, Amanda McAlister, Managing Partner of McAlister Family Law stated that current legislation “fuels the fires of conflict”.
Adding to this, she said that the idea that the Bill will usher in an influx of “quickie divorces” is inaccurate. “There is no such thing as a ’quickie divorce, despite many believing such a thing exists. And if this Bill passes, couples will now have to wait at least six months to get divorced, enforcing in law a period of reflection, and the chance to turn back. Currently a divorce can in theory be granted within six weeks of an application, but once the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill is passed it will take at least 26 weeks,” she said.
Baroness Hale, former President of the Supreme Court of England and Wales has also repeatedly voiced her support. Back in 2018 she stated:“It may seem paradoxical to suggest that no-fault divorce is aimed at strengthening responsibility, but I believe that it is”. She added: “The contents of the [divorce] petition can trigger or exacerbate family conflict entirely unnecessarily. Respondents are encouraged by their lawyers to ‘suck it up’ even though the allegations are unfair. There is no evidence at all that having to give a reason for the breakdown makes people think twice.”
Reflecting on the benefits of the proposed legislation, a Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesman said: “We will always uphold the institution of marriage. But when divorce cannot be avoided, the law must not create conflict between couples that so often harms the children involved. Our reforms remove the needless ‘blame game’, while ensuring there is a minimum six-month time frame to allow for reflection and the opportunity to turn back”.
The family law sector eagerly awaits the result of the Bill’s second reading in the HoC.