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Lord Stewartby: When I came to the debate this afternoon, I did not have any clear view as to whether I thought that any of the three amendments ought to be supported. I am still of that point of view. However, I believe that a number of issues have emerged from the debate which are most important as regards the overall balance of the Bill. That is why it is so difficult to look at any one clause, or any one part of it, in isolation from the rest.

If, as my noble friend Lord Carr said, 12 months is the right period, we must accept that it is a matter of judgment between conflicting issues. Of course it must be possible in certain cases that a longer period might lead to a greater chance of reconciliation. However, it must equally be possible that a longer period in other cases might lead to greater recrimination and less chance of reconciliation. What we are trying to find instinctively is not a happy medium, but, perhaps, the least unhappy medium which would balance the conflicting issues.

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My mind is quite unresolved on the matter. I have an instinct that 18 months might be necessary in some cases rather than 12 months. However, I should like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Irvine--as, indeed, did the noble Earl, Lord Perth--that many of us who have contemplated the question of the length of time do not do so for the purpose of any penal intent, or specifically to make divorce more difficult. Any change in any of the provisions in whatever direction is likely to make divorce more difficult for some people, and will, possibly, make it less difficult for others.

We must try to strike a balance over the whole Bill as we see its other provisions unfold. That is why I believe that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, regarding Clause 10 is most important. It is not necessarily the only part of the Bill which needs to be seen in conjunction with the clause that we are now discussing; but it is the nexus of procedures and the nexus of provisions which will ultimately determine whether the Bill achieves the improvements which we all hope it will in relation to resolving the problems connected with divorce.

I should like to emphasise and support the comments which were made by several Members of the Committee about the lady on the bar stool mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Marsh. It seems to me that the temptress on the bar stool symbolises one particular area of acute difficulty in the whole matter. I came across one of those characters once.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Stewartby: I should hasten to tell Members of the Committee that she came to a surgery in my former constituency and tried to persuade me to do everything possible to enable her to gain permission to live in this country, so that she could exert her charms on one of my constituents.

One should never take any general issue from one case. But the case is so dramatic that it illustrates my point very emphatically. The man in question had been to the United States to take part in a darts match. On the bar stool afterwards, he had found the temptress--or the temptress had found him. She was unrelenting in her efforts to secure his affections. I cannot remember exactly how much resistance to the situation came from his wife. But eventually the temptress succeeded in her objective: she married my constituent and murdered him three years later.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Stewartby: I do not recount the story in order to obtain such a reaction from Members of the Committee. Indeed, I do so because it made a very profound impression on me. It made me look at the potential implication of temptresses rather more carefully thereafter. Although I have slightly dramatised the story by using such language, I believe that there is a very serious issue to be considered which involves the question of unwilling spouses and, in some cases, such potentially short-term infatuations which may disrupt the marriage but which could easily blow over in a certain period. Whether it is through the proposed

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clause, the other amendments or by virtue of other parts of the Bill, I believe that that is an area for which it is essential that the Bill should provide appropriate measures.

6 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor: I agree with the view that the proposed amendments deal with matters which are at the very heart of the Bill. I believe that it is necessary to have a period for consideration and reflection. That period should be a minimum period and fixed by law, as a clear indication of the value and solemnity that we attach to marriage. However, the question of what that period should be is a difficult one and is a matter of judgment.

The Government set out in the White Paper the reasons which persuaded us that a year was the right period. There is another point to be made in that connection to which the noble Baroness, Lady Lockwood, referred and which bears on the point raised by my noble friend Lord Carr of Hadley. The period is for consideration and reflection. One of the conditions in addition is that there should be a resolution of the matters that arise between the parties consequent upon the divorce. That cannot be allowed to produce a divorce in less than a year. However, if the processes require longer than a year then, automatically, that will happen by virtue of the provisions.

I believe that we have met the point raised by my noble friend Lord Carr of Hadley. We have ensured not only that the period, whatever it may be, is not less than a year--and that is the important effect that I mentioned--but also that there is flexibility to ensure that what is required in the way of dealing with the situation between the parties is available in point of time.

As I said, we have before us a difficult question. It is one which requires judgment; and, indeed, Members of the Committee will be required ultimately to exercise judgment on it. My noble friend Lady Young has proposed various amendments. I do not believe that there is any real problem so far as concerns drafting. When we reach the stage where a definitive conclusion has to be taken on the amendments, it will not be a drafting question; it will be a question of judgment as to what is the right period. The longer the period the more it is necessary to think what the period is intended to do.

There is also the point that the longer the period the more pressure there is for special arrangements to be made for exceptional circumstances. It is extremely important that marriage is recognised as having the consequence of a definite period as a minimum associated with it. I am not very much in favour of extending the period if, as it were, the counter to that is a power in the court to shorten the period in special circumstances. That blurs the message which otherwise a clear minimum period sends.

As is often the case, there are problems in relation to individual cases. The case of the abandoned spouse who resents very much being abandoned has been referred to. Statistics tend to show that the proportion of these

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cases in the total is rather small, and the idea that they are particularly exemplified by one gender rather than the other is not sound. That can happen both ways; I am sure that infatuation is not entirely a male preserve.

I agree that this is a serious problem which we need to consider. If the arrangement is to have extended periods related to particular cases, then Clause 10 is the way to deal with that. It is not right to impose as a minimum period a period that deals with exceptional cases only. That is imposing on others an unnecessary wait. I agree with my noble friend Lord Carr of Hadley that the effectiveness and purpose of the period would be damaged if it is too long for any reasonable utility and for the purpose for which it is set up. So far as that is concerned, this Bill makes a reasonable provision.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, had concerns, which I will now address. Not all of them were precisely raised by this amendment but, nevertheless, they are important and have to be addressed.

The procedure in this Bill requires an information session at the outset in which parties contemplating this step, before they get into anything at all connected with the court, are given as much information as possible, in as effective a way as possible, about the various services available to them. This would include a solicitor if a party wants a solicitor, although it may be a party would prefer, or think it wiser, to go to a marriage guidance counsellor or someone with more specific skills that the party may require. Occasionally problems of illness arise and specialist advice may be required.

A party may be fortunate enough to receive wise advice--I hope that will be the case, at least on occasion--and that I very much want to encourage. The whole idea of the information session preceding any step at all is that people are given full opportunity and advice to think before they get into any process. If they do get into a process, the purpose is as I have said.

The third point is the plight of the party who wants the marriage to go on, and the noble Lord directed our attention to the possibility of using Clause 10 as the ultimate way of dealing with special cases. I feel sure that that is right.

The precise procedure that would be involved in seeking to invoke Clause 10 is not laid down in detail. The procedures would be subject to laying down details in regulations and in rules of court, with a degree of flexibility to take account of what actually happens; but that is the area in which special cases should be dealt with.

One or two of your Lordships referred to the distinction between consent and no consent. I personally believe that consent or no consent is not as relevant to this situation as at first sight appears. Of course, if there is consent there would be no question of seeking to invoke Clause 10 or the hardship bar. The distinction between the two cases is preserved by the fact that a person who does not consent will have the opportunity of recourse to the hardship bar.

It would not be right to distinguish between consent and no consent cases for showing that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. In that case the minimum period should apply whether or not the parties are

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anxious to divorce because, apart from anything else, it is right that before the divorce is granted they should consider what arrangements should be made.

One has to remember also the children. I want to guard against a situation in which two rather selfish parents are so concerned to safeguard what they see as their definite futures apart--and therefore want to get a divorce as quickly as possible--that they neglect the responsibilities they have already incurred in their union in which children have been born. As I said, it is not right to distinguish in the minimum period on that account. But I do see, and agree, that where parties have not agreed the option of applying under Clause 10 should be considered.

I agree that that is one of the most important parts of the Bill. What I have in mind is that if this matter is to be taken forward, as I think it should be, to an ultimate decision on Report, I will ensure that the drafts supporting the various periods are adequate, and then the decision as to which period it should be would be a matter for the House, on a free vote, at that stage.

As to Clause 10, obviously there are amendments dealing with that and we will have to look at that later. Clause 10 gives the option of special arrangements, in relation to particular cases, to alter the minimum period, which some of the proposed amendments do not, and your Lordships may feel that, in principle, Clause 10 is the better route for that purpose.

As I said, these are extremely difficult matters. They require very careful consideration. I have not seen evidence that would suggest that if a period of longer than 12 months is stipulated as a minimum that is likely to be particularly optimistic in terms of reconciling differences between a couple. On the other hand, for particular cases perhaps special provision should be made, and Clause 10 at least provides a basis on which that could happen.

6.15 p.m.

Baroness Young: I should like to thank my noble and learned friend for what he said. This has been a very useful debate. It has covered a variety of situations. I welcome what my noble and learned friend said in his last remarks. That is very much a matter for consideration between now and Report stage. Many speakers taking part in this debate have not previously taken part in the debate on the Bill.

We need to hold on to what we want to achieve with the Bill. I am quite clear in my mind that I should like to see marriage buttressed, because I believe that the high divorce rate is having a devastating effect on society. Every time one opens a newspaper one reads of more of its effects. I do not have to spell that out. The noble Earl, Lord Perth, made an extremely important point. He asked what signal this piece of legislation will send out to young couples contemplating marriage, let alone couples contemplating divorce. One of the signals which will go out, as the Bill stands, is that at the end of a year one can get a divorce, and one can do so against the wishes of the other partner. I acknowledge that it does away with the quickie divorce which can be

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obtained in less than six months. That is a benefit. On the other hand, if we weigh in the balance the fact that anybody who wishes to divorce can do so at the end of a year, then divorce is being made easier.

I find it distressing that when I make these remarks I am accused of trying to punish a lot of people. I am not trying to punish anybody. I believe in marriage. I believe in individual responsibility. In particular, I believe that couples who have children should make a great effort to stay together and look after them. I make no pretence that other alternatives are better. Of course there are some circumstances in which divorce is right. But there is a great deal of talk, which was apparent in the course of the discussion today, to the effect that we must try to make divorce possible for the man who wants to go off with a younger woman, or the woman who wants to go off with another man, or the woman who pushes her young husband out of the house because she is bored with him. It is implied that we must understand such circumstances. Of course such things happen, but at the end of the day we ought to be concentrating on marriage. If we do not do that what kind of lead do we give, to young people in particular?

I turn to my noble and learned friend's profound remark that the period of a year is a matter of judgment. It was a matter of judgment to those who wrote the White Paper. The noble Lord, Lord Irvine, can no more show that a year is perfect than I can show that 18 months is perfect, or indeed that six months is. It is a matter of individual judgment. It is a judgment which has to be made in difficult and differing circumstances. Therefore, I am pleased to hear my noble and learned friend say that we should consider the different lengths of time. We should certainly consider the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, about hardship. When we come to Clause 10 I hope that we shall do so because there is much to be debated on that particular point. I welcome anything which enables us to concentrate on first principles.

I turn now to the question of children. I am very sorry to disagree with my noble friend Lady Faithfull on this subject. If one believes, as I do, that the Bill will probably result in more divorces, then of course more children will suffer. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Acton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, felt that children would be better off. The truth of the matter is that all modern research shows that, difficult as marriage may sometimes be, children are better off in a difficult marriage where the partners stick together than if they divorce.

We all have endless evidence, having met young people whose parents have divorced. I know of a 15 year-old girl whose parents have recently divorced who spends almost all her time at a friend's house because she feels she has no home and there is nowhere where she feels at home. I have met people in their twenties whose parents have divorced who have never recovered from that. Therefore, let us not think that this is an easy matter. It is not. That is why I believe that we have to consider the matter very carefully.

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I have been given a great many examples. Lawyers are full of examples. They deal with divorce all the time, and no doubt if there is more divorce it makes no odds to them. However, every year 20,000 to 30,000 couples edge towards divorce and then withdraw from the procedure because they have had second thoughts. That must be welcome. Generally, experience shows that if one has longer to have second thoughts one is more likely to have them, although that may not be so in every case. However, one opens up the possibility for those second thoughts with a longer period of time.

My noble friend Lord Elton made an important point. Of course there are differences between the case of a couple, both of whom consent to divorce and where there are no children, a couple where there are children and both consent, and a couple with children where only one partner wants a divorce. We are dealing with a variety of different circumstances. As my noble and learned friend said, it must be right to regard the period as a matter of judgment.

I was very glad to hear my noble and learned friend say that he would not want the period to be extended if it could be shortened. I agree with that. However, the last thing I would wish would be for the period of a year to be shortened. That would send out an even worse signal than the one I fear we are already sending with this Bill.

It is worth reminding the Committee, in case we should have forgotten, that every single piece of divorce legislation has been accompanied by an increase in the number of divorces. Although I know that that fact has been dismissed because divorces increase for many other reasons, if we believe that legislation has no effect on behaviour there is no point in any of us sitting here at all. We must take the matter very seriously.

I am extremely grateful to those who have supported me, in particular my noble friend Lady Elles, the noble Earl, Lord Perth, and the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. It was the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, which we considered at the beginning of these proceedings which identified the criterion against which we should measure every amendment, namely the buttressing of marriage. We should consider whether they support marriages that are in difficulties and parents who are struggling under great difficulties and temptations to bring up children in an extremely difficult world, one that is far more difficult than the world in which I grew up. We should judge every single amendment on the basis of whether or not it would buttress marriage. That is the real question before us.

It is not a question of satisfying adults who wish for some reason of their own to behave in some specific way. It is whether or not the provision buttresses marriage in the interests of the children. It is a matter of deep regret to me that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford feels that we must stand on this period of one year. To feel that one does not have the support of the Church on these matters I find deeply upsetting.

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