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Is the Divorce Bill a “euthanasia programme for marriage”?

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The introduction of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill has been widely welcomed. Most people who have anything to do with divorce strongly believe that a no-fault system will be beneficial, preventing one party from being trapped in a loveless marriage, and reducing conflict, thereby making it more likely that arrangements for children and finances will be settled amicably.

But the change has not been universally welcomed.

Colin Hart, a Director of The Christian Institute, a charity which exists for “the furtherance and promotion of the Christian religion in the United Kingdom” and “the advancement of education”, has described the Bill as ‘euthanasia for marriage’. That is obviously a serious charge, so I thought I would take a closer look at what he has to say.

Mr Hart is quoted in an article on The Christian Institute website. To see exactly what he has to say, and to be fair to him, I will go through the whole quote, rather than cherry-pick excerpts.

The quote begins by Mr Hart clearly setting out his stall. He says:

“Under Government plans an innocent spouse will not be able to cite adultery or domestic violence in a divorce petition. The no-fault divorce scheme is plainly unjust.”

Unfortunately, Mr Hart is wedded (excuse the pun) to the idea of guilt and innocence in marriage. Thankfully, most of us moved on from this rather archaic concept some years ago. For a start it is actually very rare for the breakdown of a marriage to be entirely the ‘fault’ of one party, even if that party has committed adultery or ‘behaved unreasonably’. But more than that the whole concept of guilt and innocence simply isn’t appropriate within a marriage. Marriage is a joint venture, and if one party wants out, then it is over. There is nothing to be gained by an investigation by the court into the causes of the marriage breakdown.

Mr Hart goes on:

“Couples struggling through a difficult time in their marriage need time and opportunity to reconcile. This legislation seems to block off this possibility.”

I have two things to say about this. Firstly, it assumes that people will rush to court without fully considering whether their marriage has irretrievably broken down. As I have said here many times, my experience over twenty-five years practising as a divorce lawyer was quite clear: very few people commence divorce proceedings without full consideration. The reality is that the marriage is clearly over before the divorce is initiated. Secondly, Mr Hart forgets that the Bill specifically includes a twenty week period for reflection, designed precisely to give the parties an opportunity to reconsider, and possibly reconcile.

The quote continues:

“The Government’s main argument is that fault-based divorces lead to acrimony. If that is so, why is the Government also abolishing separation grounds which never involve any allegation of fault?”

With respect, I think there is a misconception (or two) here. The acrimony point relates to fault-based divorces, i.e. adultery and ‘unreasonable behaviour’. Further, and obviously, the whole scheme of the new system, based upon a statement of irretrievable breakdown, makes the current separation grounds redundant. Why would anyone wait two years, when they can have their divorce in six months?

And Mr Hart’s final point relates to the new timescale. He says:

“Four out of ten divorces are on the basis of separation and take well over two years. Under the Government’s plan it will be six months. A massive speeding up of divorce. It’s also disturbing that the Government has been trialling an online scheme which claims to process divorces in twelve weeks.”

In fact, the divorce process is not being sped up. For many, it will actually take longer. But in any event, if a marriage is over, why force the parties to wait two or, worse still, five years before they can untie the knot and move on with their lives? And the point about online divorce is just plain wrong. Whether the divorce is to be online or not, the new rules as to timescale will apply.

The quote ends with Mr Hart saying:

“This Bill is a euthanasia programme for marriage.”

Again, with respect, that is simply not so. The Bill does not weaken marriage at all. It is already effectively the case that if one party wants out, they can usually get a divorce quite quickly. The only thing that is being euthanased is the necessity to apportion blame. And getting rid of that will inevitably make many divorces less acrimonious, which will surely be for the benefit of all concerned, especially any children.

I should end by saying that, whilst I can’t speak for people of religion, I understand that Mr Hart’s thoughts do not necessarily reflect the views of all Christians. Whether it reflects the views of people of other faiths, I could not say. But even if it does, I would hope that (and without meaning to trivialise strongly held ideas) experience of the new no-fault system will make doubters into believers.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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  1. JamesB says:

    “getting rid of that will inevitably make many divorces less acrimonious” that is BS and misleading and plain wrong.

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