Ministers plan divorce reform retreat

Christian pressure group thrust into centre of the controversy
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The Independent Online
STEPHEN WARD

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Christian Action Research and Education, a multi-denominational pressure group, seemed to be a voice in the wilderness until a week ago; its opposition to divorce reform officially discounted.

Suddenly it is as though it has been recognised as the voice of Middle England, or at least of the Conservative MPs which represent it. The Church of England and the Catholic church both back the Lord Chancellor's reforms, as does the Law Commission (which advises government on legislation). However, it is the moral objections of the interdenominational group, which uses the acronym Care and has 100,000 subscribers, that have drawn attention.

Yesterday, Charles Colchester, its director, had a meeting with Lord Mackay, and gave him the unequivocal message that he was not prepared to give any support to a divorce Bill.

Mr Colchester said: "Our philosophical statement is that people need to be responsible for their actions. By making divorce easier, you take away personal responsibility."

The divorce White Paper proposed removing the fault of one party as a grounds for divorce, to try to stop an adversarial situation getting worse. According to Care, there is a need for blame. "There is a need for emotions, a catharsis to do with a moral gradation in the area of blame."

Care argues that research has shown that for children, even a bad marriage which is endured is better than a divorce.

Marriage Care, formerly the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, supports the reforms on pragmatic grounds. Abolishing the concept of "fault" and a greater emphasis on conciliation meant some marriages could be saved where the present system drives the two sides further apart, it argues. Mary Corbett, the chief executive, said some marriages which were saveable were ending because they were not being given the chance for conciliation.

"If this Bill is blocked, we will want the opponents to say to us how they are going to help the institution of marriage. At the moment, a total of pounds 2.59m a year is spent on the support agencies, and pounds 332m is spent on legal aid for divorces."

The Family Law Solicitors Association suggests solicitors will be squeezed out of their role when they are still needed by vulnerable divorcing partners.

National Family Mediation, an umbrella group for non-profit making mediation services, which has worked with the Lord Chancellor for five years on his proposals, thinks this is nonsense.

Thelma Fisher, its director, said: "A strange coalition is forming between some lawyers who fear that yet another traditional role is being taken from them, and some MPs who fear weakening of marriage is fault is removed." She said their views were often based on myths. The changes would be more likely to stem the rising divorce rate than to accelerate the increase. "No one is saying legal advice should be removed," she said. There was no question of mediation being forced on people - it would only work if both parties agreed to it, she said.

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