Divorce law in Labour's hands

ANALYSIS
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The Independent Online
Labour last night warned it would be seeking fundamental changes to require divorcing couples to see a marriage guidance counsellor after the party was put in the driving seat of the Government's legislation for family law reform.

The refusal of about a third of the Tory party to support the Family Law Bill in crucial votes last night, culminating in a defeat over the cooling-off period, left the Government with no option but to rely on Labour to get the legislation through.

Paul Boateng, Labour spokesman on legal affairs, warned the Government that the party could still wreck the Bill unless it was improved.

"This is a deeply flawed Bill which, unless improved in committee, may prove unworkable in practice and profoundly damaging in its social consequences," he said.

The Bill replaces the present "no-fault" divorces which require a two- or five-year separation before the legal split. Under the amended Bill, couples will be able to get a divorce after an 18-month cooling-off period. The Bill retains the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage as the ground for divorce, and eliminates the "quickie divorce" where one partner is forced to prove adultery or unreasonable behaviour.

Labour supports some of the underlying principles of the Bill, to remove fault from divorce, and to provide a cooling-off period, but it is planning to use its powerful position during the committee stage to introduce further amendments which, Mr Boateng, said would be aimed at trying to "save marriages" when possible.

"Labour will place a new focus on marriage guidance counselling and attempts to prevent marital breakdown at an early stage. Such an approach is vital if saveable marriages are to be saved and the divorce rate is to be reduced," he said.

Labour's proposed amendments would seek to set aside a new four- to eight- week designated period dedicated to exploring the possibility of reconciliation with the assistance of a qualified marriage guidance counsellor; those seeking divorce would be required to attend a meeting with a qualified marriage guidance counsellor between attending a divorce information session and filing a statement of marital breakdown. The purpose of the meeting would be to enable the parties seeking divorce to clarify the issues which led to the breakdown of the marriage and consider the opportunities for reconciliation.

The battle over the divorce reforms will now shift from the floor of the Commons to the oak-panelled committee room, where the rebels, led by Edward Leigh, a former minister, could gain the upper hand unless Labour uses its votes to protect the Bill from Tory backbench attacks.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, persuaded the Prime Minister to put the Bill into the Queen's Speech last November, after the domestic violence Bill was withdrawn from the last session. The two Bills were merged, but the Government whips - seeking a calm period before the general election - would have preferred the family law reforms to have been dropped.

Lord Mackay, a devout Presbyterian, was dogged in his determination to see the measure on to the statute book, in the face of fierce criticism from the Conservative "moral majority". His anxiety has always been that children should not suffer as a result of the bitterness that flows from contested divorces.

The Bill survived, in spite of a savaging in the Lords led by Baroness Young, the former leader of the Lords.

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