New divorce laws 'like a shotgun wedding'

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The Independent Online

The new Family Law Bill is the "legal equivalent of a shotgun wedding" with some aspects hasty and ill-thought-out, says the Which? Guide to Divorce.

And the Child Support Agency has been a "lost opportunity" due to the complexity of its mechanisms, claims the guide's author, Helen Garlick.

"The agency was set up with the laudable aim of improving the system for payment of child maintenance, a system which was not working efficiently. Sadly, the result has been a lost opportunity," she says.

Under the "12-month no-fault" divorce proposals before Parliament, the emphasis will be on mediation as the main means of resolving disputes, with restricted access to lawyers.

Of the plans for couples to discuss their differences over finance, property and children with trained mediators - a proposal viewed by many solicitors as likely to lever them largely out of the divorce business - Ms Garlick says: "While mediation can be a potentially helpful means of sorting out divorce problems, it will not work for all.

"Its success greatly depends on the skill of the mediators. Yet the assumption is a nation-wide network of trained mediators will materialise quickly."

The book aims to guide readers through what it describes as "the maze" of divorce, warning that mediation is not always appropriate, particularly where there are heated and complex disputes over the custody of children, finances or other assets.

The book focuses on helping couples to minimise the costs of the divorce process itself in order to free up as much money as possible for the family. "Cut out the bickering and the vindictiveness," it advises. "And don't use your solicitor as an expensive emotional prop."

The guide welcomes the domestic violence reforms as overdue and the "very sensible re-ordering of the current messy and confusing law".

It also welcomes changes to be brought in by the Pensions Act 1995, compelling courts to consider pension rights in divorce cases and giving them the power to earmark a share of one spouse's pension to benefit the other. This, says the guide, "could provide relief for recession-ridden families where the pension is the main financial asset left".

Other commendable aspects of the Bill include provision for an information- giving session at the start of proceedings.

Ms Garlick, a solicitor who specialises in family law, says changes introduced by the Children Act 1989 have improved the way children are treated during a divorce. "Parents are now encouraged to make their own arrangements for their children following divorce or separation, rather than look to the court to do this for them," she says.

t Marriage is continuing to go out of fashion. Since 1992, when 426,000 couples were married, the number of weddings has fallen by one-third. In 1993, there were 299,197 marriages and a record 165,000 divorces.