Irvine in drive to cut divorce costs

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THE LORD Chancellor yesterday condemned the legal cost of marital breakdown and launched a radical package of reforms to stop divorcing couples using up their assets on lawyers' fees.

In an impassioned speech, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who previously spoke of the pain of his own divorce, said existing court procedures were inadequate for dealing with financial settlements. The proposals, to come into force next year, include taking control of the case away from the husband and wife, and their lawyers, and giving more say to the judge.

Lord Irvine highlighted a divorce case that had gone to the House of Lords. The couple had run up costs of pounds 128,000 over the distribution of assets worth just pounds 127,400. He said he could not agree more with Lord Hoffmann, the lead law lord in that case, who said: "To allow successive appeals in the hope of producing an answer which accords with perfect justice is to kill the parties with kindness."

In a speech to the UK Family Law Conference, Lord Irvine added: "Divorce makes people vulnerable - and often already vulnerable people more vulnerable ... It can damage people's health and their sense of belonging."

Under the proposals, legal costs would be proportionate to the value of the assets at stake. Lord Irvine said the time taken for cases to be settled would be shortened by limiting the number of documents needed to be disclosed to the other side.

He said the proposals, which follow the success of pilot schemes running in 29 courts across the country since 1996, required a "major culture change" and a "judicial determination to impose tough sanctions" on those parties that did not observe the new rules.

Lord Irvine also explained why the Government had pulled back last week from implementing the no-fault divorce reforms and compulsory information meetings. He said last week's announcements "only raised a question-mark over" those reforms. A final decision could not be made until the Government had time to evaluate the results of the research.

In an interview last year, Lord Irvine spoke of the guilt he felt when he fell in love with Donald Dewar's wife and divorced his first wife. Yesterday he said: "Everyone has a view about divorce though fortunately, not everyone has to experience it. Those who have ... are often scarred by the experience."

Couple's Expensive Split

In 1992, Henryk and Ewa Piglowski, both immigrants from Poland, were divorced after 18 years of marriage. Their former home in Ladywell, south-east London, was worth about pounds 100,000, they had a pounds 14,000 flat in Spain and some insurance policies - a total value of pounds 127,400. The legal bill soared when Mrs Piglowski challenged the original settlement giving her former husband nearly a third of the assets. Mr Piglowski, unhappy with that decision, unsuccessfully appealed to the Family Division of the High Court. After going before the Court of Appeal, the case was finally settled by the law lords this week at a cost of pounds 128,000.