THE MOST radical proposals for reforming divorce law for 25 years were unveiled yesterday, signalling longer delays for most couples.
In the Green Paper released yesterday by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, all couples intending divorce would have to wait 12 months and attend a diagnostic centre for information on mediation, marriage guidance, the law and the consequences of break-up.
It signalled the end of the 'quickie' divorce for adultery or unreasonable behaviour, but it equally emphasises that the 12 months' wait would, as Lord Mackay put it, be a 'period with a purpose' - linked to a new emphasis on using mediation, not courts, to handle the aftermath of a decision to split up.
While consultative, the paper heavily endorses the Law Commission's 1990 proposal that the sole ground for divorce in England and Wales should be that a marriage has irretrievably broken down, proved by the passage of the 12-month period for reflection and making practical arrangements.
To meet the objectives of encouraging mediation while cutting legal aid costs, the paper, Looking to the Future: Mediation and the Ground for Divorce, proposes a single 'first port of call' - a compulsory one-hour interview - for everyone wanting to initiate a divorce.
The interview, not necessarily with a lawyer, could lead to appointments for mediation or marriage-guidance counselling. Or, the paper hopes, a decision by the couple to go away and reflect further.
While couples will retain the right to handle their own divorce - including consulting their own lawyers - those judged as behaving unreasonably will have any publicly funded assistance withdrawn.
Crucially, whoever conducts the initial interview - possibly a new independent divorce service, court welfare officers or local mediation services - will decide whether public money should be allocated.
Lord Mackay yesterday made clear his personal opposition to retaining fault as one of the 'facts' to prove irretrievable breakdown of a marriage, while emphasising his belief that each partner's first priority should be to try to save it.
'I personally cannot see how fault as a doctrine helps support the institution of marriage,' he said. 'It seems to be the opposite. If you want to subvert your marriage you allege fault.
'It is more likely to be constructive if 'I examine my own conduct, and my part in bringing my marriage to an end'.'
But as a summarised companion paper, free to the public, puts it: 'The law cannot make two people continue to love each other. All it can do is to help protect spouses and children and adjust their living arrangements when things go wrong.'
Lord Mackay told a news conference yesterday that he was aiming for a system that was better at identifying saveable marriages. 'Where divorce is unavoidable, I would like to see arrangements in place that minimise bitterness and conflict between the parties and reduce the trauma for the children.' His proposals would not make divorce easier, as a whole, he said. 'In some ways they would be tougher; they would force couples to accept responsibility rather than cast blame; and many more would have to wait a full year before getting their divorce, rather than six months or so as at present.'
The proposals appeared to have won over sceptical ministers in the vanguard of the 'family values' campaign. John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales and a right- winger, predicted 'widespread acceptance' of the paper.
Sue Slipman of the National Council for One-Parent Families said: 'We remain concerned that legal aid should be available for women who seek remedies in the court where their spouses effectively hide the true worth of their assets.'
UK MARRIAGE FAILURE RATE WORST IN EUROPE
One in three marriages in the UK is destined to end in divorce.
The UK's divorce rate is the highest in Europe at 150,000 a year.
Half of all divorced fathers lose contact with their children under the current system.
The likely average cost of mediation over children and financial issues will be about pounds 550 - one-third of the current average cost per case.
The legal aid bill for matrimonial cases in 1993 was pounds 180m.
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