Mackay reassures lawyers on divorce

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Legal Affairs Correspondent

A beleaguered Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, spelled out concessions and reassurances to lawyers last night in an apparent attempt to secure their support for his Divorce Bill.

John Major has made it clear the Bill will still be in the next week's Queen's Speech despite attacks from Conservative backbenchers who feel it is a threat to family values, but has left the impression that it could still be squeezed out by other legislation and may have to be heavily amended to appease party opinion.

Lord Mackay, speaking to a seminar of family law solicitors in London last night conceded that the proposals as they stand were far from guaranteed when he said: "I am sure you will appreciate that no legislative proposals are ever guaranteed until the moment of Royal Assent. In a sense the consultation process lasts from initial discussions with interested parties right through the due process of parliamentary debate."

Solicitors had feared that Lord Mackay's plans outlined in a White Paper earlier this year would cut off much of their legal aid work by forcing couples to use mediation instead of lawyers. The implication in the White Paper was that if couples refused mediation they would not get legal aid to go to a solicitor.

The White Paper also included a plan for anybody filing a divorce petition to be forced to attend an information meeting where experts would spell out the alternatives to lawyers available to them.

Last night Lord Mackay said he was prepared to drop this compulsory information session following opposition from solicitors, and would be prepared to substitute a video which couples could watch at home, possibly augmented by telephone calls.

The Lord Chancellor also went out of his way to make it clear that he did not intend the divorce reforms as a way of saving taxpayers' money by reducing the amount of legal aid available.

He said: "It concerns me that my wish and desire to save more marriages and my belief in mediation as a viable means of sorting out the consequences of marriage breakdown, is being interpreted by some as 'anti lawyer'. My proposals are not directed against lawyers. Nor are they directed at cost-cutting."

He emphasised that mediation would not be compulsory in any new system and couples would not be forced into it. "In being positive about mediation I am not being negative about lawyers."

He said the result of the reforms would not be a two-tier system where those with money could use lawyers while those on legal aid had to accept mediation. There would still be cases where the breakdown of the marriage had been too painful for couples to negotiate in this way. "Legal aid will be available in situations where mediation is not appropriate provided the normal eligibility tests are met."

He also said that couples using mediation would be allowed legal aid to take the advice of lawyers as well. "No one who requires such legal help will be denied that help provided they meet the usual eligibility tests."