NEW proposals to allow couples to divorce without having to blame each other for their marital breakdown have been criticised by Christian organisations for allowing “no reason” divorces.
The overhaul of the 50-year-old divorce law was announced by the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, on Monday, after a public consultation ended last year. Mr Gauke said that the new legislation would “end the blame game” for divorcing couples by removing the need to cite “fault” or separation when filing for a divorce.
“While we will always uphold the institution of marriage, it cannot be right that our outdated law creates or increases conflict between divorcing couples.”
The current law requires people seeking divorce to give evidence of one or more of five facts: adultery, behaviour, desertion, two years’ separation (if the other spouse consents to the divorce), and five years’ separation (otherwise). The Ministry of Justice has said that the new law would be introduced as soon as possible, allowing for parliamentary scrutiny.
A spokesperson for Church House said: “Divorce is always a sad process, and it is right that the law be kept under review. We want to support and strengthen marriage, because in its challenges as well as its joys, it is an immensely important gift from God. The test of a law is how it works in practice, and this is something we will continue to monitor.”
The RC Bishop of Northampton, the Rt Revd Peter Doyle, who chairs the Bishops’ Committee on Marriage and Family Life (CMFL) under the auspices of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said that the change would “undermine” the “binding contract” of marriage.
“Marriage is a binding contract entered into freely and wholeheartedly by both parties. However, if notice can be given by just one party that they wish to leave the marriage without any recourse for the party that has been left, the equality and validity of that contract and the trust and commitment vital for its success will be undermined at the outset.
“With the usual caveats around domestic abuse and coercion, a minimum time-frame of six months between application for a decree nisi and decree absolute is insufficient time for the couple to consider any prospect of reconciliation. It may in fact push couples headlong into making new arrangements for themselves and their children without first giving them the time necessary to work through the decision to end the marriage.”
The Christian charity CARE said that the move “fundamentally undermines the nature of the marriage commitment”. Its family policy officer, Jonathan Williams, said: “For all its rhetoric about supporting marriage, by its actions, the Government is doing the exact opposite.”
The chief executive of Christian Concern, Andrea Williams, agreed. “‘No Fault’ divorce is really ‘no reason’ divorce,” she said. “How can the Justice Secretary say in one breath that he wants to uphold the institution of marriage, when he is tearing it down, allowing people to walk away from their solemn promises to hold together in life-long commitment?
“Marriage is a solemn, life-long promise before God to love and care for another person; the availability of unilateral divorce renders this promise meaningless.”
Another conservative Christian pressure group, the Coalition for Marriage, posted on Twitter: “The Government is setting out to destroy the foundations of marriage by allowing cheating or bored spouses to walk away from a solemn, lifelong commitment.”
As well as the option of a no-fault divorce, the new law would allow couples to submit joint applications for divorce, and would remove the right of a spouse to contest divorce proceedings once they have been initiated by their partner.
The charity Relate welcomed the “much-needed change” to an “outdated” law. Its chief executive, Aidan Jones, said: “This . . . is good news for divorcing couples and particularly for any children involved. The outdated fault-based divorce system led parting couples to apportion blame, often resulting in increased animosity and making it harder for ex-partners to develop positive relationships as co-parents.”
A partner at the law-firm Barlow Robbins, Joanna Farrands, told The Guardian that the Government had been right to heed contributions to the consultation and reform “archaic” divorce laws.
“Naturally, there had been concerns that the divorce process would become ‘too easy’. However, today’s announcement provides a good compromise, delivering reform without undermining the institution of marriage.”
Bishop Doyle asked to see more evidence that the Government wanted to strengthen marriage. “In parallel with any reform of the legal requirements for divorce, we would like to see greater support from the Government for good marriage preparation and initiatives which help make marriages work.
“Marriage preparation lays the foundations for living a happy and fulfilled marriage, equipping the couple with skills to nurture and sustain their relationship, work through difficulties and manage the inevitable conflicts that challenge every marriage.
“Timely and quality preparation of engaged couples will assist them to recognise each other’s expectations of the marriage and their joint understanding of what love and commitment mean.”