If we want to achieve true social equality we need to reform our outdated divorce laws

Divorce law in England and Wales still relies on the concept of blame, or one party admitting ‘guilt’ – it is no longer fit for purpose

Janet Street-Porter
Friday 27 April 2018 16:03
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If the prime minister truly wants to help ordinary women – the kind who work for a living because they have to – it’s simple: chuck out the concept of blame in divorce, and make pre-nuptial agreements enforceable in law
If the prime minister truly wants to help ordinary women – the kind who work for a living because they have to – it’s simple: chuck out the concept of blame in divorce, and make pre-nuptial agreements enforceable in law

Congratulations to Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, who is expecting her first baby at 39. She tweeted a picture of herself, her fiancée Jen and their spaniel with the caption “our little family of three is becoming four!”

This piece of good news sums up how relaxed attitudes to sex, relationships and marriage have become in the last decade or so. Who would have thought that a jolly lesbian would lead the Scottish Conservatives, appear in Vogue and become one of the UK’s most popular politicians?

Or that Elton John, a happily married father of two, would read a bedtime story on CBeebies as he does for his two little boys at home. Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May swiftly sent congratulations to Davidson, knowing only too well that the canny Scot could be a future prime minister.

Davidson says she and her partner hope to marry soon after their baby has been born – she’s already admitted that after three dates it was inevitable. If our attitudes to same sex relationships have become more tolerant, the legal and political establishment have been slow to recognise that there are huge anomalies in dealing with the fallout when partnerships go wrong.

Ruth Davidson: "The dam has broken on this now and these male-dominated professions"

Worse, there’s a huge discrepancy depending on whether you divorce north or south of the Scottish border. Davidson and her partner Jen Wilson are lucky to live in a modern civilised county, one that has swiftly adapted to social change.

In England and Wales, marriage is slowly going out of fashion, in part due to the complexity and cost of splitting up. Couples live together because they erroneously believe that the law will offer some protection should they go their separate ways. How can people be so ignorant? The division of property and agreeing access to children can cost unmarried couples a fortune in legal bills if there are disagreements.

If you are married, clear guidelines set out a framework to resolve these issues. But the grounds for divorce remain medieval – the concept of blame remains in place in England and Wales, but not in Scotland.

Since 2006, couples divorcing north of the border need only cite one of two reasons – breakdown of the marriage or gender reassignment. Breakdown is defined as one of the following: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, a one-year separation by mutual consent, or a two-year separation where one party objects.

Two-thirds of Scottish divorces fall into the “quickie” category, and the divorce rate has fallen by 14 per cent in the past four years. Division of property is equally split, as is the responsibility of caring for children under 16. Why can’t England and Wales follow suit? The last attempt to reform our divorce laws took place in 1990, blocked in parliament by those claiming the changes would undermine marriage.

Divorce law in England and Wales still relies on the concept of blame, or one party admitting “guilt” – it is no longer fit for purpose. Most of our senior judges are actively campaigning for radical change – Baroness Hale, Baroness Butler-Sloss, Sir Alan Ward, Sir Paul Coleridge, Lord Mackay and Sir James Munby, all with years of experience.

Baroness Shackleton, a leading divorce QC, agrees. If all these experts concur, surely there’s no need for another commission to investigate how to change our divorce laws, we should simply bring them into line with Scotland.

A new BBC1 drama called The Split, by Abi Morgan, started last week, based on the work and family life of a mother and her three daughters, all high-powered divorce lawyers. In real life, women are highly successful barristers specialising in obtaining maximum rewards for their wealthy clients in the family courts – and London has become the divorce capital of the world because of the size of the settlements some wronged wives are able to obtain from their billionaire husbands.

​Isn’t this a bit like trading in blood diamonds, something we should not be comfortable accommodating? If the prime minister truly wants to help ordinary women – the kind who work for a living because they have to – it’s simple. Chuck out the concept of blame in divorce. Make pre-nuptial agreements enforceable in law. Offer long-term married couples the chance to draw up legal agreements that are watertight should they split. Give heterosexual couples the right to enter into civil partnerships. So simple, I can’t imagine what’s holding her back.

Forget what the Church of England thinks – they are out of step with modern Britain anyway, refusing to allow same sex marriages in churches or permitting gay vicars to get married.

Watching Morgan’s entertaining drama, it’s clear the only people profiting from the current mess are wealthy middle class lawyers who have a clock running while they express faux-sympathy for your cause. As a client, you are just another feather in their cap. Highly trained women pretending they are fighting for other women, whereas they are far more concerned with their own status within the toxic world of the legal profession.

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