Leading Article: A less bitter and cheaper divorce

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The Independent Online
TO E M FORSTER, a largely frustrated homosexual, marriage was 'the longest journey', as he entitled one of his novels. Nowadays it tends to be a good deal shorter, but in some respects even more arduous than Forster's phrase implied. Expectations of every sort have risen sharply. The level of emotional and sexual fulfilment that couples hope to derive from their relationships becomes ever harder to attain, let alone sustain. Raising the odds further, women have - at least in Europe, North America and to a lesser extent Japan - ceased to accept the role of subordinate partner. Many, perhaps a majority, now seek to combine a satisfying job with maternity and a more or less equal sharing of domestic responsibilities, to the consternation of some men.

So it is hardly surprising that the average marriage now lasts a mere nine years, or that at the last count divorces rose by 3 per cent and marriages fell by 7 per cent. Those trends are likely to continue. Illegitimacy has long since lost its social stigma; and as more and more children emerge into adulthood scarred by unhappy homes, fewer will tend to see marriage as natural or desirable.

All this must be painful to the Conservative Party, which seeks with a thick impasto of moralising to paint itself as the party of family values. All credit, therefore, to that humane and unideological man, the Lord Chancellor, for proposing changes in the present law that would make a relatively rapid divorce easier than at present - and considerably less painful and expensive for all concerned.

As the law now stands, couples qualify for divorce if they have been separated for two years and both parties agree to end their marriage; if they have been separated for five years without any such agreement; or as quickly as can be arranged if one of them alleges fault by the other. The three grounds for what is deemed an 'irretrievable breakdown' are unreasonable behaviour, adultery and desertion. In such cases, both parties will arm themselves with lawyers. From the resulting adversarial clashes, much bitterness, damage to children and expense will result - not least to the state if the parties qualify for legal aid.

The Green Paper that Lord Mackay of Clashfern will present on Monday proposes an alternative procedure that would greatly reduce both the human and financial toll. At its heart is a 'no fault' divorce after a wait of 12 months, on the sole ground of irretrievable breakdown and on the condition that all consequences of the break-up (future of children, sharing of property and so on) have been settled to the court's satisfaction.

This change would not be possible without an extended network of mediators with some form of training or qualification. At present the limited number available come mainly from the voluntary sector, funded by a mixture of charges to clients and grants from a variety of sources. To create a nationwide network would, at least initially, soak up savings on legal aid: in the current economic climate there must be a question mark over the Government's willingness to make the necessary funding available.

Yet how worthwhile a network of neutral counsellors and adjudicators would be. In some instances, warring couples might be persuaded to give their marriages (or partnerships, since unmarried couples with children or shared assets would also seek their services) another chance: mediation leading to reconciliation. In most others, the triple aim of reducing bitterness, protecting children and slashing legal bills, should be achievable.

The immediate effect could be to accelerate many divorces: for those in a hurry the prospect of mediation would be much less daunting than the present traumatic and expensive clash of lawyers; and there would be no need to complete a separation of two or five years. Yet it would be hard for the Opposition to make political capital out of popular legislation, and in human terms the gains would be great.