Panel will control right to divorce

Compulsory interview is central feature of review
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The Independent Online
All couples will have to face a panel of legal and other experts before being allowed to proceed with a divorce under radical reform proposals to be unveiled in a White Paper tomorrow.

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, has built up the idea of an initial diagnostic interview, set out in a Green Paper in December 1993, developing it into a much more sophisticated proposal for compulsory sessions with a group of experts.

Panels would be set up in every court area to ensure couples were fully informed about conciliation services, whether marriage guidance ought to be sought or whether lawyers should be consulted. Couples would also be told about the impact of the Child Support Agency.

Lord Mackay has warned Cabinet colleagues the start-up costs of creating the network of panels and of increasing the number of trained mediators could be significant. But he is particularly concerned that implementation of his reforms do not meet the same fate as the Child Support Agency, beset by start-up difficulties and protests.

He is, therefore, expected to advise a long preparatory period - perhaps two years - before the legal changes are implemented. He also believes the heavy start-up costs will eventually be offset by reduced spending on matrimonial legal aid - in the year 1993-94 it reached £226m.

The White Paper drawn up by Lord Mackay will signal the end of the widespread "quickie" divorce for adultery or unreasonable behaviour that is currently granted to 75 per cent of couples, often within six months.

Under the option that will be favoured in the White Paper, couples would be granted a divorce after a wait of 12 months - provided they have used the period to resolve disputes over children and finances.

The paper and the parliamentary Bill now expected to follow in the autumn will herald a new emphasis on divorcing couples - now totalling 200,000 each year - using conciliation, through a trained mediator, to deal with the aftermath of break-up by reaching agreements instead of resorting to lengthy and expensive court battles.

The Lord Chancellor is one of the firmest upholders of the institution of marriage but is convinced the current law inflicts unnecessary hurt and damage to children, and that his reforms would force divorcing parents to think constructively about their children's welfare instead of casting blame.

He is not pressing for conciliation to be compulsory but wants to ensure as many couples as possible approach divorce fully aware of the consequences of the break-up and of their responsibility to make satisfactory arrangements for their children.

Tomorrow's paper represents a victory for Lord Mackay over once-doubting Cabinet colleagues such as John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, and the former education secretary John Patten.

John Major was one of the last Cabinet colleagues to come on board because of worries that the shake-up, the most fundamental for more than 25 years, would get bogged down in presentational difficulties and claims of "easier" divorce.

Even as late as last Thursday, when the Cabinet's home affairs committee gave the paper the go-ahead, Jeremy Hanley, Conservative Party chairman, is understood to have suggested it should not be published in the run- up to the 4 May England and Wales local elections.

Under legal aid proposals to be revealed in a Green Paper early next month, couples qualifying for such aid will be restricted to law firms that have qualified for a "franchise" to offer matrimonial work. The White Paper is expected to propose that parties judged to be acting unreasonably will have publicly funded assistance withdrawn.

The paper will emphasise that no divorce will be granted if a judge is not satisfied with the arrangements made.


"Quickie" divorce for adultery or unreasonable behaviour no longer available

Divorce permitted after 12 months, provided court satisfied of arrangements for children and finances

New emphasis on resolving disagreement through conciliation, not court battles

Compulsory interview with panel of experts at outset of proceedings, with advice on options of conciliation, marriage guidance, or consulting lawyers

Better-off couples can use their own lawyers - but must still attend the session with the panel