Leading article: Making divorce humane

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The Independent Online

This Government's only serious attempt to reform the divorce laws came to nothing. Five years ago Labour shelved a legislative package devised under the previous Conservative administration that would have scrapped the concept of finding "fault" in one party as grounds for divorce. This package would have also compelled couples to attend meetings to discuss their problems and seek a reconciliation. All this was put aside. And apart from a tentative pilot scheme to teach divorcing parents conflict management skills two years ago, the Government has stayed well clear of this area ever since.

Yet the deficiencies in the divorce system that prompted the Government to attempt reform in the first place remain as glaring as ever. As Lord Justice Wall, a distinguished court of appeal judge, tells The Independent today, the lingering existence of the concept of "fault" promotes conflict. The fact that a divorce will be granted sooner if the behaviour of one party can be shown to be "unreasonable" encourages couples to accuse each other. As many of those who have gone through this process testify, this is deeply unpleasant for all involved.

It is also unfair to the children of divorcing parents. Not only is it traumatic to be caught in the middle of an acrimonious separation, if two parents are not co-operating, there is little likelihood that adequate plans for access and childcare will be in place by the time the divorce is finally granted. This is no small consideration. More than half of divorces in England and Wales involve children under the age of 16.

The solution is to complete the process begun by the 1969 Divorce Reform Act and fully liberalise the divorce laws. Ministers claim they dropped their original plans for reform because they feared a backlash from couples forced to wait longer for a divorce while they attended compulsory meetings. Yet this was always the flaw in the original package. The idea that forcing couples to talk will result in a significant number of them getting back together remains unproven.

So while compulsory mediation is a bad idea, the scrapping of fault remains sensible. This is not a question of making divorce "easier", as some will doubtless claim, but making the system more humane to all involved. The Government should bring this issue, that sadly affects a growing number of people, back on to the agenda.