Labour ditches no-fault divorce

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The Government is to put on ice plans to introduce no-fault divorce in order to avoid a pre-election clash with "Middle England".

The Government is to put on ice plans to introduce no-fault divorce in order to avoid a pre-election clash with "Middle England".

Legislation has been on the statute books since 1996 but not put into practice. Now Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, has concluded that to put it into operation would antagonise a strong body of opinion.

Critics of no-fault divorce think it outrageous that, no matter how bad a husband or wife's behaviour might be, and regardless of how unfaithful, no blame would be attached.

The legislation represented a complete change in divorce law and should have led to the axeing of adultery and unreasonable behaviour as grounds for a "quickie" divorce.

Under the present system, fault-based grounds account for about two-thirds of all divorces and can take as little as three months to be granted. But if couples do not wish to sling mud at each other and attempt to settle their differences harmoniously, the process becomes drawn out.

Couples must be separated for two years and give their consent before a divorce is granted. If consent is not given, the pair must be separated for five years. Reformers had hoped a no-fault system would end acrimonious, drawn-out splits, dragged through the courts. Last year, £387m was spent on legal aid in matrimonial and family proceedings.

It was hoped that no-fault divorces could be settled more amicably via special out-of-court arbitration hearings, following mandatory information meetings to explain the divorce process to couples.

But the planned legislation is not without problems. To mollify "moral-majority" peers and MPs, the previous Conservative government built in a series of hoops through which couples would have to jump to get their divorce. For example, couples would have reach a full financial settlement before a divorce was granted, potentially adding a year to the process. Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the then lord chancellor, hoped that a longer reflective period would make some couples re-think and patch up their marriages.

Those drawbacks prompted Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss who, as president of the High Court family division, is England's most senior family judge, to tell a meeting of the Mothers' Union this month: "There are major problems about its implementation from a procedural and practical point of view. It has major logistical problems in ever being implemented."

A senior government source said: "Those views have been put to us forcibly. We recognise the genuine nature of the concerns. And they are factors which we will have to consider before making any decision."

Richard Sax, a former chairman of the Solicitors Family Law Association, who advised the Government on the law change, said: "These are sensitive issues. People do feel very strongly about them. They [the Government] are worried about it encouraging divorce.

"I would be disappointed not to see the no-fault provision introduced. We have a situation where we have a piece of law on the statute book - bits of it have come but the major parts of it have not, and that is very confusing for everybody."

A 900-page report on a series of pilot studies to test whether the no-fault scheme would work has been sitting on Lord Irvine's desk since late August. Its author, Professor Janet Walker, of Newcastle University, refused to discuss its recommendations, but was adamant that the fault-based system was "unhelpful" and needed replacing.

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