Plan to reduce divorces in tatters

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PLANS TO cut the number of divorces through mediation are to be shelved after a pounds 6m nation-wide pilot scheme turned out to be a disaster.

The project, preparing for a shake-up next year when no-fault divorces are due to be introduced, was so unpopular that nine out of ten of the 5,000 divorcing couples in the pilot areas shunned it. Of those who attended, only 7 per cent accepted mediation and 13 per cent took up the offer of seeing a marriage counsellor.

The idea behind the scheme, billed as a radical shake-up in the divorce laws, was to make couples think again or reach an amicable agreement on splitting up. But nearly 40 per cent of those who attended mediation said they were more, rather than less, likely to see a solicitor because of advice they received at the meeting.

The results confirm what many lawyers and mediators already knew - that most couples who have decided they want to divorce can not be dissuaded.

Lawyers fear the Government's decision not to implement the reforms next year as planned will lead to the scrapping of the new no-fault formula in favour of the existing "quickie divorce," where one party has to apportion blame on the other to have the marriage dissolved.

Part II of the Family Law Act 1996, forced through by Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the previous lord chancellor, is aimed at reducing acrimony between divorcing couples, particularly when children are involved.

Couples would go through a 12 and 18-month cooling-off period, during which they would have to attend a meeting designed to save saveable marriages and promote mediation for couples beyond help.

Rosemary Carter, chairwoman of the Solicitors' Family Law Association, said that while there was sense in getting rid of information meetings, no-fault divorces were a move in the right direction. Relate, the relationship counselling service, said it was "sad" the Government had taken this action, as the measures would have made divorce less acrimonious.

But it suspected the Government had also discovered how "expensive" the information meetings were. Sara Robinson, of the Family Law Consortium, a firm of solicitors which had expected to benefit from the proposed changes in family law, was "stunned" by the decision. "The no-fault part of the Act has much public support and the support of the vast majority of professionals working with families involved in family breakdown."

Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, said the Government had to be satisfied the mechanisms were in place to support families and reduce conflict before introducing the radical reform of divorce laws.

The pilot results showed that was not the case. A final assessment of the projects will be made next year, when the Government would consider its next steps, Lord Irvine said.