Divorce proposals aim to accelerate no-fault settlements: Two-year separation requirement could be halved and emphasis put on counselling despite pressure from ministers for tough line

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The Independent Online
DESPITE pressure from the Conservative right wing to maintain a hard line on divorce, Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, will today unveil a package of reforms proposing a 'no-fault' divorce after only one year of separation and focusing on mediation rather than the courts.

He is expected to outline options for government funding of a national network of mediation centres, to assist joint decision-making at the time of separation - the first decision being whether the marriage is irretrievable.

At present, legal aid rarely covers mediation services and the 60 existing centres are funded by grants and clients' charges. Solicitors and family welfare groups had argued that without adequate funding for the centres to provide financial advice - few are qualified to do so - the reforms to be outlined in today's Green Paper could create a two-tier service whereby richer couples would bypass the centres and go straight to lawyers.

However, proposals to increase spending in the Lord Chancellor's Department will be resisted strongly by ministers. It is expected that funding will come, for example, from the anticipated savings in the legal aid budget as a result of fewer divorces being settled in court.

The proposals outlined in the Green Paper - Looking to the Future: Mediation and the Ground for Divorce - were first put forward by the Law Commission, the Government's law-reform advisory body, in 1990. They were followed by three years' work by the Lord Chancellor's Department into the effectiveness of mediation to ensure that when a marriage cannot be saved it ends with as much fairness and as little bitterness as possible.

It will urge an end to the 'quickie' divorce obtainable in three to five months where adultery or other unreasonable behaviour is cited, and instead will provide for divorce after a year on the sole ground of 'irretrievable breakdown'.

Couples wanting to separate without blame now have to wait two years. But some ministers, ashamed of Britain's high divorce record at the top of the European league - about 160,000 couples will part this year - believe the reforms are at odds with the party's 'family values'. There is also concern at the costs of divorce - in 1990 it was estimated at about pounds 1.5bn in benefits, housing and legal actions.

Several Cabinet ministers have urged a tough line and argue that 'no-fault' divorces should be delayed for two years. Others maintain that adultery and unreasonable behaviour should continue to play a part in divorce law.

But the Lord Chancellor is firm on the idea that children should be protected from the impact of acrimonious and bitter breakdown based on allegations against one parent, and he will endorse the Law Commission's proposals. Sources suggest that the paper is 'very green' and will therefore include the proposals of other ministers for debate and consultation. It will not be until the publication of the White Paper on divorce reform that it emerges who has won the 'family values' debate.