The Government’s Divorce Bill had its second reading in the House of Lords this week, where it faced significant opposition from Peers who highlighted the ways it would undermine marriage and disempower the respondent to a divorce petition.
The Minister leading the debate claimed that “The reforms that we have set out today will deliver a revised process of divorce that protects all our interests in marriage, reduces the potential for conflict and its impact on children, and is fit for the 21st century” however he received significant opposition from peers who challenged both the principle of the reforms as well as specific aspects of the Bill.
The debate, which took place on Wednesday afternoon, was comprehensive covering the way these reforms will impact children, could lead to a rise in divorce rates, how it will impact society’s perception of marriage, the lack of mediation provision in the Bill and the details of how the 20-week reflection period will work in practice.
Peers Criticise Government Approach
A number of Peers spoke out against the Government’s approach to these reforms.
Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Burt pointed out that there is no reflection period into the divorce process, as recommended by the law Society. She noted that “Most marriages have their rocky patches but, in my view, a period of reflection would facilitate sober consideration of the enormity of the step to be taken, enabling them to think about it and discuss it with a marriage counsellor.”
The Lord Bishop of Carlislenoted that marriage is a building block for society, arguing that “Reducing divorce to a statement made by one party that the marriage has broken down undermines the seriousness with which marriage and divorce are regarded and has the unfortunate effect of shifting any power in the process away from the respondent to the person initiating the divorce. What is more, studies suggest that making divorce quicker and easier will significantly increase the already high divorce rate, with all the implications that has both for human misery and financial cost.”
Conservative Peer Lord Farmer claimed that the Bill is “fundamentally flawed because it not only ignores the urgent need to strengthen families but weakens them. It is an inconvenient truth that, as we seek to make the United Kingdom match fit for a competitive global market, we are a world leader when it comes to family breakdown.”
Crossbencher Lord Harries, outlined his worry that this Bill might create the impression that marriage is merely a contract. Rather, he maintained that marriage is “An unconditional commitment—what the Bible calls a covenant, a solemn, binding, valid pledge which, once made, has a moral force in its own right. Sometimes, as we all recognise, we fail, and that moral claim has to be set aside as the lesser of two evils. But it is not simply a contract from which we can withdraw at will. Marriage is not something that has been invented by the Church. It is a natural human commitment of two people who have come to love each other.”
Commenting, CARE’s family policy officer Jonathan Williams said:
“The strength of opposition in this week’s debate to the Government’s proposals clearly shows that there are some fundamental flaws in the Divorce Bill. This is not only in the principle of no-fault divorce, which CARE believes will undermine marriage in our society, but in the detail of the Bill which seems ill-thought through and could seriously disempower those responding to a divorce petition.
“This Bill could introduce the fastest divorce law in the world, with respondents to a divorce petition only have 7 weeks knowledge of their spouse’s desire to divorce before it is confirmed by the Court. That situation would be manifestly unjust.
“The Government must listen to the concerns raised by Peers this week and consider dropping this damaging Bill, or at the very least amend it to remove the most egregiously harmful elements.”