LETTER : Children's welfare should be a priority in reform of divorce law

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From Mr Malcolm Wicks, MP

Sir: If the Lord Chancellor's proposals for divorce law reform ("Panel will control right to divorce", 26 April) are motivated primarily by a strong wish to put children first, then they are to be welcomed. However, the Government's related concern to reduce legal aid expenditure raises the question as to whether cost-cutting, not children, is the substantial driving force.

The welfare of children is crucial. For too long divorce has been an adult affair. Yet, the social revolution of family change has not been a bloodless one. Children are among the principal victims. Most divorcing couples have children under 16 - 57 per cent in 1992; and in that year some 168,000 children, in England and Wales, had parents who divorced.

Despite much good legal practice, the case for reform is now overwhelming. Two things are crucial. The first is the development of a high-quality mediation or conciliation service. The second is a guarantee that parties to the divorce have access to legal aid and advice. There must be resistance to any suggestion that mediation is some kind of cheap alternative. It is not. Rather both mediation and legal representation are vital.

The Lord Chancellor's White Paper could - and must - become a building block for sound practice. The social stakes are certainly high. As many as one in four children under 16 will be affected by marital breakdown. And a survey of one-parent families by York University in 1989 showed that a staggering 35 per cent of children had no contact with the absent parent, usually the father.

Reform on the cheap makes no financial sense. The public cost of divorce is a staggering £4bn.

If divorce law reform could make even small improvements in terms of, inter alia, the housing settlement and the relationship between the non- custodial parent and his children then the development of good, quality mediation becomes a price well worth paying.

Yours faithfully,

MALCOLM WICKS

MP for Croydon North (Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

27 April

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