Divorce legalised in Chile for first time

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The Independent US

A bill legalising divorce in Chile was signed into law yesterday by President Ricardo Lagos. The law will go into effect in six months' time to give judges time to study it and for courts to be set up to hear cases.

"This is an important day for Chile and its families," President Lagos told a crowded signing ceremony at his palace. "I think we have got a good law."

The country's Catholic leader, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, declined to attend the ceremony as a reflection of the church's displeasure. A spokesman for the church said: "It hurts us, because this law damages the family."

President Lagos made an indirect reference to the church's opposition to the law: "We cannot impose the positions of one sector of our society on all Chileans," he said. About 87 per cent of Chileans consider themselves Catholic.

Congress approved the legislation in March after a nine-year debate. The lack of a divorce law in Chile forced couples with failing marriages to resort to subterfuge to gain annulments. One common measure was for one of the partners to declare to a court that their marriage was illegal because their spouse had reported a false address when they married. The legal cost of an annulment is about US$670 (£375) - steep in a country where the minimum wage is about US$180 (£100) a month.

The new law allows couples to be divorced after being separated for at least a year, if both spouses agree. If only one party agrees, the waiting time is three years. Legislation sponsors initially objected to the waiting periods, but they finally agreed in return for votes from reluctant right-wing legislators.

A judge can approve a divorce without a waiting period if one of the couple proves violations of marital duties by a partner, such as violence, homosexuality, prostitution, drug addiction or a criminal conviction.The law also requires couples seeking a divorce to have counselling for at least 60 days.