Champions of marriage should back me

Following this week's Commons defeat, the architect of the Divorce Bill replies to his critics
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The Independent Online
With headlines such as "Divorce Bill defeated by rebel Tories" dominating yesterday's newspapers, readers could have been forgiven for thinking that the Family Law Bill had suffered a truly catastrophic setback.

When the dust has settled, the truth will, I hope, become clear. The effect of the amendment, passed on a free vote, is that the period of reflection and consideration required in the Bill before a divorce is granted will be extended by six months where one of the couple applies to the court for further time to reflect, or where there are children of the marriage under the age of 16.

I have always said that the length of the period for reflection is a matter of fine judgement which raised issues of conscience and would be subject to a free vote. The particular length of time was never central to the reforms. The principle is that there should be a period of reflection and consideration. That still remains at the core of the Bill. The really important decision that has been made by Parliament is that this principle, of a period of reflection, should replace the current system, which I believe does nothing to save marriages.

At present, people are required to allege fault, whether adultery or unreasonable behaviour, to obtain a quick divorce. The median time for a divorce is currently seven months, but it can be granted in as little as three months.

These allegations of fault may be true, but because divorces are not often contested, they are rarely examined in detail. So the main role of these allegations in the divorce process is to provide couples with a speedy exit from the marriage, often before they have made adequate future living arrangements, or often even fully considered whether a divorce is what the two of them really want.

Whatever the rights and wrongs in the marriage might be, nobody has ever advanced the argument that a divorce based on one spouse alleging fault about the other has ever done anything to rescue the marriage. The real effect of such a system is to increase acrimony and bitterness for all concerned, and that includes the children. The additional effect is to enable a person who has been guilty of adultery to remarry much more quickly than a person whose behaviour has been entirely faultless.

The system proposed in the Family Law Bill gives couples the opportunity to pull back from a process that has fault and recrimination at its core. It encourages them to look to the future, and to think hard about what the real implications of a divorce would be for themselves and their children.

For the first time, couples that are considering divorce will be given full information about what divorce involves. They will be encouraged to resolve their problems face to face through mediation rather than through the often acrimonious exchange of letters between their respective solicitors. And, if the mediator feels there is a prospect that a marriage can be saved, mediation will cease and the couple will be referred to a marriage counsellor, who may even be able to help them rescue their relationship.

If the marriage cannot be saved, then I believe that the Bill's framework will make it far more likely that the couple can make future living arrangements in a way that will enable any children involved to retain the best possible relationship with both parents after divorce.

I would greatly prefer it if all marriages were happy, and that divorce never happened. However, I do not have a magic wand. As legislators, we have a duty to make the best of what is often an imperfect world, and to introduce laws that are framed for people as they are, rather than as we would like them to be. That is why I believe that the Family Law Bill represents a real opportunity to improve the divorce laws, and as such, deserves the support of all those who claim to champion marriage and family life.

The writer is Lord Chancellor

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