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Divorce reform swiftly returns to parliament

By Monidipa Fouzder

The government has swiftly put long-awaited divorce reform back on the agenda after reintroducing legislation to end what the justice secretary called ‘needless antagonism’.

The Divorce, Separation and Dissolution Bill, which was introduced in June, came to a standstill twice – as a result of September’s unlawful prorogation of parliament and December’s general election. The bill, which introduces provisions for no-fault divorce, had passed through two readings in the Commons and the committee stage. Yesterday, it was introduced to the House of Lords.

Current law requires spouses to evidence at least one of five ‘facts’: adultery, behaviour, desertion, two years’ separation (if the other spouse consents to the divorce), or five years’ separation (if the other spouse disagrees).

The bill will replace the requirement to evidence conduct or separation ‘fact’ with the provision of a statement of irretrievable breakdown. The possibility of contesting the decision to divorce will be removed. The court will be able to make a conditional order after 20 weeks has passed from the start of proceedings.

Justice secretary Robert Buckland said: ‘The institution of marriage will always be vitally important, but we must never allow a situation where our laws exacerbate conflict and harm a child’s upbringing. By sparing individuals the need to play the blame game, we are stripping out the needless antagonism this creates so families can better move on with their lives.’

Family lawyers, who have long campaigned for no-fault divorce, welcomed the latest development.

Nigel Shepherd, former chair of family law group Resolution, said: ‘After a series of false starts last year, we are delighted that government has chosen no-fault divorce as the focus for one of its first bills tabled in the new parliament. For far too long, far too many couples have been effectively forced to assign fault during the divorce process in order to satisfy outdated requirements.’

Joanna Farrands, a partner at London and Surrey firm Barlow Robbins, acknowledged concerns that the divorce process could become too easy. ‘However, the bill provides a good compromise, delivering reform without undermining the institution of marriage,’ she said.

Parallel changes will be made to the law governing the dissolution of a civil partnership. The proposed legislation will not cover other areas of matrimonial law such as financial provision.

(Courtesy: Law Gazette Society)