A White Paper that Lord Mackay hopes can be turned into a Bill to put before Parliament this year places its emphasis on trying to persuade couples to use mediators at an early stage, and introduces a compulsory one-year period for consideration in all cases, even where both parties seek an early divorce.
Lord Mackay will also become an unofficial "Minister for Marriage", taking over from the Home Office all responsibility for marriage guidance and research into marriage breakdown, and chairing an inter-departmental working group to find ways to shore up the institution of marriage. Britain has the highest divorce rate in Europe. Family law solicitors, who joined the general welcome for the "no-fault" proposals, said last night they feared the stress on mediation would lead to some parties in divorces losing legal aid for vital advice for solicitors if they embark on mediation.
Under the proposals, where a marriage breakdown is irretrievable, a new process would be created to ensure couples settle differences over children, home and finances before securing their divorce after a 12-month wait. The existing criteria required to obtain a divorce would be abolished. At present divorces are granted if it can be shown that a marriage has irretrievably broken down through adultery; unreasonable behaviour; desertion for at least two years; living apart for two years where both parties consent to divorce; or living apart for five years where one party is unwilling to divorce.
Anyone seeking a divorce, no matter how wealthy, would be required to attend an "information-giving session" where experts would inform them about conciliation services, the effects of divorce on spouses or children and the mechanics of getting a divorce. Lord Mackay said he hoped to find ways of preventing press intrusion turning the event into a harrowing ordeal for the famous. But mediation will not be compulsory. To force couples to attend would be pointless, the White Paper concludes.
Lord Mackay said last night at a press conference: "I am deeply committed to life-long marriage as an ideal. However, I recognise that the civil law must accommodate many situations which, although less than ideal, do occur in practice. Marriage breakdown is such a situation, and the law must provide for an orderly and considered process of dissolution where that breakdown is irretrievable."
He hoped that the removal of the incentive to allege fault - used for divorce in three-quarters of cases - would "remove the bitterness, hostility and sense of injustice which so often surrounds divorce".
He said the voluntary mediation services were already expanding to meet the needs of the proposed reforms. After the legislation received Royal Assent, the new system could be in place within two years, he said.
The mediation would be funded by legal aid for people who qualify under the existing means test, but the Lord Chancellor does not expect the overall cost to the taxpayer to increase, because the amount paid to lawyers should go down. The Government would not fund parallel legal advice and mediation.
However, Lord Mackay attempted to allay the fears of lawyers that people would be denied solicitors when they needed them. He said: "There is no question but that legal advice will be available when appropriate during divorce."
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