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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the position I have in mind is to apply the later amendments in respect of the consideration of the arrangements which are in place as evidenced by the statement put before the court. The court will have an opportunity of considering whether or not to exercise its powers under the Children Act. That is the purpose of this.

One of the great difficulties in this area is to make sure that one is not interfering unnecessarily. There is a terrific waste of effort and an intrusion of unnecessary bureaucracy if matters are interfered with unnecessarily. I have had consultations through my officials with those with specific knowledge of children's matters to see whether we can develop a system for making sure that the statement which is put in about the children's arrangements will enable the court reasonably easily to ascertain the cases in which there is a real question of whether it should consider the Children Act powers. That is what I have in mind.

It is not easy to know exactly how to do this. I believe it is necessary to do so by reference to the regulations because it is a matter one would learn about and develop over time. It is difficult to fix with any degree of confidence in primary legislation. That is what I have in mind as a way of developing the point which the noble Lord raised.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I congratulate him on and thank him for his enormous sensitivity in dealing with these matters. I am very convinced by that answer.

In regard to Amendment No. 24, the points which the noble and learned Lord made have impressed me and those who have joined me in putting down the amendment. In a moment I propose to withdraw it. I was not entirely convinced that Amendment No. 60 could not still be refined in a way which would make it a useful contribution. I particularly endorse the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, that children need a friend or supporter--someone they can

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talk to--in this context. It may be that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, about a local authority may enable us to discuss this further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness David: My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord has spoken favourably of Amendment No. 75, I should like to thank him very much and to say that I look forward to seeing the amendment which I hope he will bring forward at the next stage.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale had given notice of his intention to move Amendment No. 25:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause--

Representation of minor by Official Solicitor

(" . In any proceedings under this Part any child of the family under the age of sixteen years shall be represented by the Official Solicitor, who shall submit a written report to any mediator or court considering the child, and who may (and shall if so requested by a mediator or a court) make oral representation.").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, as I was working on an earlier draft of the groupings, I had not realised that Amendment No. 25 was grouped with Amendment No. 24 and I did not speak to it. In view of the importance of the matter of children in divorce perhaps I may say a brief word on Amendment No. 25. Although there is an overlap between ascertaining the views of the children, where appropriate, and representing their interests, nevertheless I believe that it is just as well to analyse the two separately.

I believe that there is a general consensus arising out of the Committee proceedings that it is desirable that the interests of the children have representation in some way. On this list of amendments there are a number of suggestions--to which my noble and learned friend properly adverted, since he was dealing with the latest grouping--in favour of the Official Solicitor. There is also the court welfare officer, a guardian ad litem, a children's officer and, I believe, one other. They have all been suggested. Despite what my noble and learned friend has said, I tend to favour the Official Solicitor, whose general duty, with his officers, is to represent children where their representation is desired. The court welfare officer is almost certain to be involved, but he is not the suitable person to do the job, as I see it. He is a probation officer seconded to the court from the Probation Service. He cannot, where necessary, instruct counsel, whereas the Official Solicitor can.

My own view is that this matter needs to be further considered. My noble and learned friend is bringing forward an amendment at Third Reading and it may be that we shall have to leave this question over to the other place. In view of what my noble and learned friend has said, I do not believe that we have arrived at a proper solution.

In the meantime there is no course open to me except to consider the matter again at Third Reading in the light of the amendment of my noble and learned friend. I am not sure that that covers his reference to the final consideration by the court of the way in which the children's interests have been successfully taken care of before a divorce is pronounced. I assume that my noble

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and learned friend was referring to proceedings under Section 41 of the 1973 Act. We shall all want to read what he said so carefully just now and return to the matter at Third Reading, if necessary.

[Amendment No. 25 not moved.]

Clause 6 [Period for reflection and consideration]:

[Amendment No. 26 not moved.]

Baroness Young moved Amendment No. 27:

Page 4, line 5, leave out subsection (3) and insert--
("(3) The period for reflection and consideration begins with the fourteenth day after the day on which the statement is received by the court and comprises--
(a) one year where a statement has been made by both parties and there are no children of the family; or
(b) 18 months otherwise,
and during the first six months of the period for reflection and consideration, neither party shall be open to criticism for failing to consider arrangements for the future.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this is a very late hour to start what I regard as an important issue. I very much regret that we are considering the amendment at this particular time. I hope that my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor will feel able to consider the amendment. It is intended to be a compromise. The amendment proposes the extension of the year for reflection and consideration to 18 months where children are involved. That is the same principle as applies in the Bill as now drafted. At the same time, it provides for the opportunity for reconciliation throughout that time, something with which both I and my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor agree and wish to see. I do not think that the amendment conflicts with the principles which he has advanced.

The amendment is a compromise, in that it retains the one-year period for reflection and consideration for those couples without children both of whom consent to the divorce. At an earlier stage in our proceedings, there was quite a lot of discussion about the different provisions for those couples who have children and are divorcing and those couples who do not have children and are divorcing. This is an attempt to draw a distinction between the treatment in each case. As I had understood it from our earlier discussions, that is what your Lordships would like to see.

The amendment also provides that a court could not hold it against a spouse for failing to make an informal agreement. It therefore takes the pressure off a couple facing mediation for at least six months. Coupled with some of the subsequent amendments, it creates in effect a kind of free zone for the first six months although reconciliation could take place.

The principle of the extension of the time limit from one year--one must recall from our earlier debate that at the end of that year either spouse can divorce the other without his or her consent--has the support of Cardinal Hume in a remarkable article in the Tablet and of the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York.

I believe that the amendment is a compromise. It is intended to be helpful and constructive. We know that in Scotland nearly 60 per cent. of divorces take between

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two and five years and that in Northern Ireland the proportion of divorces taking that time rises to 73 per cent. Of course, there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland, in that the accelerated procedure does not apply. However, so far as I know, there has been no public demand for a shorter period in either Scotland or Northern Ireland. The period which I and my colleagues are proposing in the amendment is considerably shorter than the period which applies generally in either Scotland or Northern Ireland and in at least 25 per cent. of all divorces in England and Wales. To my way of thinking, the longer period is much fairer to the spouse who does not want a divorce. At present, 25 per cent. of divorces in England and Wales take between two and five years. In this Bill, why should we not consider the spouse who does not want a divorce but who, under the terms of the Bill, can be divorced against his or her wish?

I also think that the longer period for reflection and consideration is important, in that we know that today between 20,000 and 30,000 couples come to the brink of divorce, but then drop the divorce proceedings and do not complete them. We also know that a high proportion of those who do divorce subsequently regret it. Surely we should be trying to help couples in both those circumstances by encouraging them to think again right up to the moment when the divorce is granted. I also believe that, now that we have decided that there will be no fault, it becomes even more important to protect the interests of the spouse who does not want a divorce, and to take more time.

According to the poll quoted by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, to which I have referred previously, 60 per cent. of the respondents support the present two-year period of separation where both parties consent to a divorce. Those who support a period of reflection and consideration favour a period of 20 months, which is approximately what is suggested in the amendment.

This is an important issue. I hope that my noble and learned friend will consider it in the spirit in which it is offered. For those of us who are deeply unhappy about the Bill and its effects, I hope that this is one way in which we might find some common ground and make progress. I beg to move.

10.30 p.m.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, if Amendment No. 27 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 28 to 31 inclusive on account of pre-emption.

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