On 5th February 2020 the House of Lords debated the Government’s Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill at its Second Reading. The Bishop of Portsmouth, Rt Revd Christopher Foster, expressed concern about the Bill, saying that divorce needed to be kinder to all involved, rather than easier. In his view “the Bill before the House discourages reflection and hence the possibility of reconciliation”.
The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth: My Lords, I add my warm welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Hunt, and congratulations on her fine maiden speech.
I hope that ordained speakers can bring a distinct perspective to the deliberations of your Lordships’ House today, since—unless I do noble Lords a grave disservice—the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle and I from this Bench and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, are the contributors to our debate who conduct marriages.
I have never lost the sense of immense privilege of being with two people at such a significant moment in their lives, and of the joyfulness of the occasion, their commitment to one another and the commitments they make so significantly together and before others. Such commitments are integral to the foundations of their lives together, but also to the lives of their friends, communities and society as a whole. If your Lordships will forgive my brief lapse into theological jargon, marriage represents not just a contract but a covenant between two people, and between them and society. It is about not contractual rights but covenantal generosity. It represents a good for them and for us all.
Moreover, my sense of privilege has also extended to helping couples get ready for their marriage and then for their journey beyond—sometimes, of course, with pain, separation and divorce. Perhaps I am saying nothing more than that marriage is a very solemn thing and a very big deal, that the vows couples make are serious and must be treated seriously. This means that, while I wholeheartedly endorse the overall aspiration of reducing conflict when marriages break down, which is a good one, I hope the Government will recognise that the Bill by itself will not succeed as claimed in removing—a very strong claim indeed—issues that create conflict.
Creating divorce by fiat and assertion might lead to conflict. I have been reminded of the important provision quoted in part already from the Family Law Act 1996 that
“parties to a marriage which may have broken down are to be encouraged to take all practicable steps, whether by marriage counselling or otherwise, to save the marriage”.
That seems a laudable approach and one ignored by the Bill. The possibility—even the probability—that a marriage has broken down is best explored by the couple together with the support and guidance of others before any definitive conclusion is reached. Reducing the process of divorce to a single simple statement by one party risks squeezing out such exploration. In seeking to minimise pain, the Bill also risks removing the opportunity for reflection and the chance of reconciliation.
I wonder too whether the Bill risks creating the sort of strain it seeks to avoid. As I understand it, it is entirely feasible that one party in a marriage might know that the other considers that the marriage has come to an end when they receive a statement via the court. That seems wholly undesirable and does not match the Government’s stated intention that the decision to divorce is a “considered one”.
Perhaps my biggest concern about the Bill is that it is partial reform. Yes, it seeks to reduce conflict and remove the requirement to allege fault when marriage breaks down, but a significant strain, often with acrimony and hardship, is arguments over the division of assets and the arrangements made for the children of a marriage. If we are truly to address the financial and emotional fallout, to reduce family conflict and to minimise the impact on children, which again are the Government’s laudable intentions, I suggest that fuller and wider reforms be considered. Divorce needs to be kinder to all involved, rather than easier.
Sometimes relationships no longer work, and marriages break down. It is right that some marriages come to an end with the least degree of animosity possible between the different parties. My concern is that the Bill before the House discourages reflection and hence the possibility of reconciliation, and will not have the effect which the Government desire. It represents a missed opportunity for wider and vital reforms.
Baroness Meacher (Crossbench): …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth said that the Bill should make the law kinder not easier. In my view, that is exactly what the Bill does. It makes the law kinder. It does not make it easier; it is purely kinder, and I very much support it for that reason…
Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe (CB):…last night, at a very late hour, I received an email from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, whose name has already been mentioned this evening, to say that she was in the United States. She very much regretted that she was not able to participate in this debate and sent me four pages of what she would have said if she were here. I have no intention of reading even one of those to your Lordships, but it is perhaps right to mention that she may well intervene at a later stage in the passage of the Bill to suggest that more should be done to bring the financial provision that can be made on divorce in line with the new change in the grounds for divorce. That would go some way to meeting the points raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth and the Liberal Democrat side. However, that is a matter for a later stage.
Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames (LD)..I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth that divorce should be an overall process of securing a collaborative resolution of the difficult issues facing the couple and their family—their children in particular—including financial issues and issues concerning children, but I part company with the right reverend Prelate in his view that the Bill stands in the way of kinder divorce, and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, on the effect of the Bill. Under the present law, the divorce process is kicked off with a hostile and unproductive blame game, one in which the children are often caught in the middle, which sharply aggravates the strain and anxiety of coping with their parents’ divorce, a point well made by my noble friend Lady Burt of Solihull…