Anne-Marie Trevelyan contributions to the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill 2017-19

Tue 2nd July 2019 Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (First sitting) (Public Bill Committees)
Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons
13 interactions (1,310 words)

Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (First sitting)

(Committee Debate: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
Anne-Marie Trevelyan Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd July 2019

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Ministry of Justice

Thank you. I invite Committee members to ask questions, in order. We have a strict deadline and must finish by 10.15 am.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 9:29 a.m.

Q Thank you very much for coming in to help us progress this Bill. What are your views of the Bill? Are there any improvements we should be making, or is it a pretty good attempt to solve this particularly difficult dilemma?

Nigel Shepherd: If I may start, I think this is an excellent Bill. The important thing is the big picture. Resolution members—6,500 family justice professionals—are dealing with divorce disputes up and down the country on a daily basis. Our ethos is to try to do so in a constructive, non-confrontational way, yet in the words of our current chair, Margaret Heathcote, who is quoted in the Ministry of Justice’s press release announcing the Bill, under the current law we are doing that job with one hand tied behind our back. Each year, about 100,000 couples are getting divorced in England and Wales, and the most recent statistics show that about 57% of those are pushed into this blame game, alleging one of the two primary fault grounds of adultery or behaviour.

The Committee will be aware that the Family Law Act 1996 would have introduced no-fault divorce, but it was never implemented. We estimate that, since then, about 1.7 million people have assigned blame in the divorce process. Many of those would have done so not necessarily because they wanted to or because it was the real reason for the divorce but because under the current system, if they cannot afford to wait at least two years for a consensual divorce, that is the only option open to them. Crucially, a large number of those would have been parents. Quite frankly, we have waited too long for this reform, having had it once and not got it over the line. In the meantime, we are dealing with that conflict on a daily basis. It is damaging to families, and particularly damaging to children. It is the time that the law caught up with the public attitude, which is that it is time for change and to end this blame game.

Eddie Hughes Portrait Eddie Hughes (Walsall North) (Con) - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 9:34 a.m.

Q You said that the reasons they state do not represent a fair reflection of the actual reasons. On what is that based? I thought I had read a report that said that 91% of petitioners said that it was very close or fairly close.

Nigel Shepherd: A national opinion survey, “Finding Fault?” You will hear evidence in the next session from Professor Liz Trinder, who conducted empirical research called “Finding Fault?” and the opinion survey for that found that only 29% of respondents to a fault divorce said that the fact used matched very closely the reason for the separation, and that 43% of those identified by their spouse as being at fault disagreed with the reasons cited in the divorce petition.

We call it a blame game, because at the moment if someone comes to see me as a practising family lawyer and says, “We both agree that the marriage has broken down. It is very sad, but we want to do this in the right way for our children and move forward. Can we get a divorce?” I say, “Not unless you want to wait two years.” They are aghast. They say, “That’s crazy. What do we do?” and I say, “Well, one of you is going to have to blame the other. Has there been adultery?” They say, “No,” so I say, “In that case, it is a behaviour petition.” They ask, “What do I have to say?” And that does not really matter. It has to be true—as a lawyer, I cannot put them through something that is untrue—but you can practically go on to the internet and cut and paste things such as, “I don’t like the way they control the remote control.”

Break in Debate

Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab) - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 9:55 a.m.

Q I have a technical question about the Bill. Clause 6 gives the Lord Chancellor wide-ranging powers to amend primary legislation. Are you comfortable about those powers? The clause is titled “Minor and consequential amendments” but that is a bit of a misnomer.

David Hodson: I think there is an agreeable difference between the Law Society and Resolution here. We would like to see any material changes to the expectation of the structure set out in primary rather than secondary legislation. We are keen for the public, at the end of this process, as the measure goes through Parliament, in either a few weeks—some would think that is too rushed—or in a few months, when there is an opportunity for public debate, to understand what the divorce process is all about. The 1996 measure did at least allow the public to have a discussion about what it was like. We are not having that discussion at the moment, partly because this is going through fairly quickly and partly because it has not got into the public arena, so we would be very keen to say this: if the Ministry of Justice has any concerns about bringing any of these aspects forward, it should put them in the primary legislation.

There is another reason. At the moment, clause 1 does not read well. I mean no undue criticism of the drafter, but nobody could pick it up and read it. I tried to do that on Thursday at lunchtime and I really struggled. It is not a progressive process, it does not use straightforward language, and you cannot see it. Nigel and I have had a happy disagreement, but when is the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage? In terms of what we need to have within this structure, I agree with Nigel that we do not want to clog it up, but there are some crucial elements that we think should be brought into this legislation, as opposed to having—dare I say?—Henry VIII-type powers. Henry VIII is probably not the right person to bring up in the context of divorce, and Henry VIII-type powers probably should not be in, of all things, this divorce legislation.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 9:57 a.m.

Q To pick up on something that you said, Mr Hodson, the reality is that the language of applicant and respondent is important because it gives control to the person—I am thinking particularly of women who are trying to leave an abusive relationship. If it is changed, how do they maintain control of the next stage of the process, which clearly this Bill does not cover, in terms of the finances and protecting their children and ensuring that they are in control of the timetable and, indeed, the outcomes on that side of things?

David Hodson: It is totally unaffected by that particular provision. Domestic violence and children proceedings are under another piece of statute. They would often be dealt with by a different judge on another occasion. None of the financial elements would actually overflow into those two, so there is absolutely no prejudice whatever.

In terms of the timetable for the three months, a person might want to bring an application for interim financial provision. One reason why we have so many fault-based divorces in this country is that, in some instances, people need financial help and they can get it under our law only against what we used to call ancillary relief. Some countries have free-standing provision—I think Sir James Munby is coming, and it would be interesting to ask him. I think he supports free-standing financial provision—so you do not need a divorce. Many people apply for a divorce as a route to applying for financial provision. They would not be prejudiced in any way by having this litigation-free zone. They could apply straight away, which must be right.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 9:59 a.m.

Q But in terms of that direction and that messaging, if you are no longer the applicant, although you are the one applying, that changes the whole sense of who is fighting for this, because the financial arrangement side is still often a fight.

David Hodson: It does not—forgive me. You would often have a petitioner for a divorce who may actually be the respondent to the financial claims. It gets awfully confusing, but you would often have the petitioner, who actually seeks the divorce under our present law, and it may be the respondent—maybe the wife—who then makes the application in form A, because she needs the financial provision, and she would be called the applicant in the financial claims. Because they are financial proceedings, they are separate to the divorce and they have a separate court hearing. She is the applicant and she would actually be the one who would control the entire timetable. She would be the one who made the opening speeches if they were at a hearing. She is the one who would actually be the applicant. The divorce is literally divorced from the financial process apart from two or three dates, and completely divorced from domestic violence and children proceedings—and rightly so.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab) - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 10:04 a.m.

Q To be clear, the Law Society would like us not to take out clause 6. I have yet to see what the views of the others are. Is that because you are against Henry VIII clauses generally, or do you think one is particularly inappropriate in this Bill? This is being put forward as an uncontentious Bill, but that is rather undermined by the desire to get it through simply and quickly without amendment. There is an attempt to have your cake and eat it by leaving in the ability to amend it completely in future.

David Hodson: Clause 6 must stay in; there has to be the power for Government—for the Ministry of Justice—to bring in statutory instruments. We are saying that if the Ministry of Justice has in mind any changes, and if there are certain elements within the structure of the process of divorce that are in question, let us debate and understand them now, have a discussion, and bring them in there. That is certainly not to suggest that there should be a much longer process and much longer clause 1. If some of these items—not a lot; just a few of them—that we have put in the Law Society briefing paper are going to be considered, they should be brought forward and discussed now.

Nigel Shepherd: Resolution is relaxed about the current structure of the Bill. We feel that we can proceed with this as this is, and we can deal with some of these details in secondary legislation. Again—I am banging the same drum—our primary focus is on removing fault from this process, and that is what we want to get over the line.

Break in Debate

Good morning. May I ask the panel to introduce themselves for the record, please?

Professor Trinder: I am Professor Liz Trinder from the University of Exeter.

Mandip Ghai: I am Mandip Ghai, from the charity Rights of Women.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 10:15 a.m.

Q Does this Bill improve things for those who have been living in an environment of domestic abuse?

Professor Trinder: Hugely, I would say. At the moment, probably about 20,000 petitioners are alleging domestic abuse in behaviour petitions. That is a very substantial number. I led the first major study of divorce law, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. One of the things we did was to talk to people who have been going through the process. Certainly, where there has been a background of domestic abuse, people had a strong sense of not wanting to inflame the situation or put themselves more at risk by alleging particulars of behaviour. About 20,000 petitions annually involve allegations of domestic abuse and not to have to put those allegations forward would put those petitioners, particularly women, in a much safer position.

Mandip Ghai: We would agree with that. As part of my role at Rights of Women, I regularly advise survivors on our telephone advice lines. They have a real concern about issuing a divorce petition at all, and about the perpetrator’s reaction, but they have particular concerns if they are having to cite domestic abuse on the petition. The Bill will also, we hope, prevent perpetrators using the threat that they will defend petitions to try and control her or have the upper hand in negotiations about finances and children.

We also find, often, that if the perpetrator issues a divorce petition first, she has to agree to a divorce based on her unreasonable behaviour, when in fact the reason why the marriage broke down was his abuse towards her. We support the Bill.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait Anne-Marie Trevelyan - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 10:18 a.m.

Q Do you think we will see an increase in applications in this cohort of families, if the process is easier?

Professor Trinder: I dispute the concept that it would be easier. I echo Nigel Shepherd’s point that it would be kinder. There is absolutely no reason why there would be a significant increase. In effect, the Bill just changes the way irretrievable breakdown is evidenced, by removing the need to present allegations that may or may not be true. What we may see—it happened in Scotland and other jurisdictions—is that there will be a temporary increase or spike in the number of divorces that are being brought forward. The law would not cause an increase in relationship breakdown; what it would do is enable people who are waiting for two years, sometimes five years, who are in a queue already because their marriage has broken down, to move on with their lives, sort out permanent agreements for their children and resolve money issues without having that long wait.

Mandip Ghai: For survivors who are thinking about leaving an abusive relationship, the point of separation is often the most dangerous time for them. There are lots of things they are thinking about, not just his reaction to the divorce. The Bill would just be one thing that would hopefully help her leave the abusive situation.

Rosie Duffield Portrait Rosie Duffield (Canterbury) (Lab) - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 10:19 a.m.

Q To expand that, parties will still have to wait a year before applying. In your opinions, is there a danger that that will exacerbate any existing abuse?

Professor Trinder: That is a difficult issue, about which we have thought a lot. In general, the Bill very helpfully places responsibility for determining whether a marriage has broken down on the parties. In almost all instances, it is entirely up to the parties to determine whether the relationship has broken down and make that declaration. My only reservation with the one-year marriage bar is that it possibly has a symbolic importance to Members here. If the threat of removing the bar were to jeopardise the progress of the Bill, then I would not support it. Part of the reason for my making that statement is that there is not much evidence for needing to remove the bar.

In our study, we looked at a nationally representative sample of 300 undefended cases. Only four of those were brought within year two—months 12 to 24. Only one was brought in the 13th month, as soon as it was legally possible to bring those proceedings. Numerically, the size of the population is small. In those four cases we also looked at what the case was about: why the marriage had come to such a precipitate end, whether it was domestic abuse, and whether it was women trying to flee an abusive relationship. None of those cases involved domestic abuse. That is not to say that there would not be domestic abuse survivors wanting to leave a marriage soon, but the numbers are very small and divorce in itself is not a protective measure.

There is the potential for nullity in the case of a forced marriage. Non-molestation occupation orders would be a solution. In any case, women would be in a better position in that, although they would have to wait 18 months, they would not have to disclose particulars of behaviour.

Mandip Ghai: We would obviously want survivors to be able to end an abusive marriage as soon as possible. We would agree with the one-year bar if concerns about it were going to derail the Bill: looking specifically at the impact on survivors, there is not enough evidence. I would also want some evidence on the impact it would have on migrant women and migrant survivors. I do not have enough information on that at the moment. There is also the issue of the potential impact on immigration status if someone’s stay is dependent on their relationship with the abuser. We do have concerns about the one-year bar, but we would agree on that if it was going to derail the Bill.