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Baroness Young: I support the amendment which was so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord Stallard. It is based of course, as he said, on the principles which were set out in the White Paper. We would all agree that they are unimpeachable objectives and ones that we would all like to see carried out.
Nearly every Member of this place who spoke on Second Reading wanted to see marriage buttressed. To set out the proposed statement at the start of the Bill will, as the noble Lord said, enable us to look at all the subsequent amendments in relation to those general principles to see how far we are standing by them. That
There are four unimpeachable objectives set out in the amendment. It is good to say that we want to minimise bitterness in divorce, but one of the objectives at which we shall have to look is to recognise that it is better still to save the marriage in the first place, because the damage done to children in the course of a divorce is much longer lasting than the damage done by quarrelling parents. All the modern research shows that to be so. It is an important point onto which we should hold. We shall be coming to later amendments which deal with those points so I shall not elaborate on them now.
I have been asked by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chester to say that he supports not just this amendment but many of the following amendments. He hopes very much that my noble and learned friend will look at them carefully as we debate the various amendments to the Bill.
Lord Irvine of Lairg: I could be persuaded to favour this general objectives clause in this Bill, although from a different standpoint from that of my noble friend Lord Stallard; broadly speaking, so that it can be improved upon and particularly in the area of encouraging reconciliation. In my view, in its present form the Bill passes the standards, the objectives set by the amendment.
I know that parliamentary draftsmen sometimes say that they dislike broad purpose clauses, but it is sometimes wise to have them, as Parliament has recognised. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack will himself recall that he thought it right to include a broad purpose clause as Section 1 of his Legal Aid Act 1988.
The great merit of my noble friend's general objectives clause is that it will dispel misunderstanding about the objectives which the particular provisions of the Bill aim to further. My noble friend's first objective is to support the institution of marriage. That of course has my full support and would have the full support of the Committee, but this is a Bill about whose purposes there is great misunderstanding, especially on the part of those who are trying to extend from a year to 18 months or more the mandatory period for reflection and consideration.
The first point is that the Bill does not, in practice, make divorce easier. On the contrary, in its present form, providing as it does a mandatory year for reflection and consideration, it strengthens the institution of marriage much more than does the present law. I yield to no one in support for the institution of marriage. Marriage should not lightly be undertaken nor lightly set aside, but when judging legislation brought before us, the first base is to take a hard and realistic look at what it will replace.
The truth is that divorce today is attended by no greater formality than renewing a driving licence. It is all done through the post. Typically, the petition will be based on adultery or unreasonable behaviour. The petitions are never, except perhaps in a handful of cases throughout the country, defended at any trial of the allegations. What happens is that the petition is sent through the post to the local county court. Then a copy is sent through the post to the other party by the court itself. The other party is invited to indicate whether there is to be a consent or a defence. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is consent.
There are two basic reasons why that is almost always so. When matters have reached that stage, the parties appreciate that their marriage is dead. They recognise the futility of prolonging the agony. Life cannot be breathed into a dead union. In practice, the Legal Aid Board will not grant legal aid to defend a divorce petition, as the noble and learned Lord will confirm. That would be to apply public funds in a futile exercise.
Once the consents come in, the district judge of the County Court will list two dozen or so cases for 10.30 in the morning for the pronouncement of divorce decrees. He will intone that a decree nisi of divorce is pronounced in all the cases in front of him that morning, en bloc, in a single sentence. He will not even terminate each marriage separately. That is how our courts at present behave in relation to the institution of marriage when setting marriages aside.
Six months after pronouncement of the decree nisi that decree will be made absolute and the marriage will be terminated. The interests of the children are not addressed until this short six-week period. In theory the court must be satisfied that the arrangements for the children are satisfactory or, a lesser test, are the best that can be devised in the circumstances.
Perhaps I may take a moment to describe to the Committee how this investigation is judicially conducted. One morning, at about ten o'clock, approximately two dozen cases will be listed for the district judge to consider the parties' arrangements for their children. So 48 people will turn up legally unrepresented. They will sit altogether waiting their turn to be called in to see the district judge who will sit in his private room. The nearest analogy is waiting one's turn in the family doctor's surgery. On average, it takes about five minutes for each couple. In essence, the judge is told what the parties have themselves agreed and that, in practice, is what the judge accepts. I am not criticising the judges; far from it. What I am speaking about is real life. A mandatory year for reflection and consideration
The Bill is supportive of the institution of marriage. There will be no more quickie divorces but a year for reflection and consideration during which the mediation process will follow its course. There is a central point about mediation which the mediators concerned understand fully; that mediation is not about reconciliation. The mediator is not a reconciliator. He is a mediator of proposed solutions for the parties to try to agree; parties who have agreed that they must part.
That, we can assure the mediators, we recognise, but it brings me to the second of my noble friend's objectives which is to ensure that all practical steps with a view to preventing the irretrievable breakdown of marriage are taken. That very proper objective, in the name of saving marriages wherever possible, can be fulfilled only if the Bill recognises in the clearest terms the public interest in promoting reconciliation. It does not. On the contrary, by Clause 7(5) and (6) it penalises attempts at reconciliation by suspending the mandatory period of a year while reconciliation is being attempted. It operates as a serious disincentive against attempting reconciliation. For that reason I have brought forward Amendment No. 40 which is designed to encourage reconciliation. I do not, of course, attempt to speak to that amendment now.
My noble friend Lord Stallard, in his notable speech on Second Reading, drew attention to the sparse reference to reconciliation in the Bill and to the failure of the Bill to encourage reconciliation positively. His second objective will be better fulfilled if there is some statutory underpinning for reconciliation. It must be accepted that people cannot be compelled to attempt reconciliation.
Let us look at my noble friend's third objective which is to ensure that the parties understand the practical consequences of divorce before taking any irreversible decision. I believe that that objective is met by the Bill through its provisions for mediation. The mediation process will bring home to the parties what divorce will mean for them. They will be free, with this knowledge, to pull back from the brink. Disincentives to trying to become reconciled should be removed but no law on earth can compel them to live together. Although it may not in practice be necessary, there may be a case for making my noble friend's third objective a statutory duty on mediators. He may wish to consider that.
I turn to my noble friend's fourth objective which is to minimise the bitterness and hostility between the parties and to reduce the trauma for the children. I wholly endorse that objective but I firmly believe that to extend the one-year period to 18 months or more would exacerbate, not minimise, the bitterness and hostility between the parties and the trauma for the children. That is the test by which the one-year period is to be judged. This morning's press is replete with stories that the noble and learned Lord is ready to yield and extend the period. I hope that however these leaks have been inspired--all the articles say Government sources--they are leaks in which there is no foundation.
We gave the noble and learned Lord's Domestic Violence Bill bipartisan support. We lament that in this Bill the noble and learned Lord has watered down the domestic violence provisions in order to meet spurious objections from a section of his own party; a section as uninformed as it is unrepresentative. His earlier domestic violence provisions, which he thought were right, as did I, were agreed between the parties and for our part we will not depart from that agreement. On the contrary, we will try to return some steel to his soul so that he will feel able to continue to agree with himself.
I turn to the one-year period. I am confident that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues are satisfied that the period of one year is right. The broad bipartisanship which I would hope could accompany the passage of a Bill of this kind--although I recognise that it is a matter for individual conscience--would be severely prejudiced were the noble and learned Lord to yield to the attempt to extend the period of one year. We could not accept that. I therefore urge the noble and learned Lord to reflect on the attitudinising that accompanies the demand that the year be extended to 18 months or beyond. The affection of rectitude to no sensible purpose is always to be abhorred.
What is the practical point of extending the year to 18 months? A year is quite enough for reflection and consideration; it is quite enough for mediation. One cannot compel people to live in a loveless union; one cannot breathe life into what is dead. The Government's proposals at paragraph 4.13 were right. They state that a longer period than a year would increase distress and that:
The children of relationship number one surely want to know where they are; they do not want delay to no purpose. No law on earth will prevent people making new relationships and having children within them. Those children will be innocent as will the children of relationship number one. The children of relationship number two also have their legitimacy to be considered.
As a matter of principle, I believe that my noble friend's objectives are well judged. They dispel misunderstanding. They are sound standards against which to judge the particular provisions of the Bill. As matters of principle, they have our support.
We are legislating about the lives of people and innocent children. It is rationality that should inform our debates, not attempts to claim a spurious, moral high ground--an imaginary world not inhabited by those for whom we must legislate. Above all, we must legislate in the spirit of realism and not moral romanticism.
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