How divorce law changes will give countless children their childhoods back

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Planned changes to divorce laws could spare years of protracted legal wrangling and damage to children caught up in bitter proceedings. Chris Burn reports.

The end of a marriage tends to come with after much soul-searching and in painful circumstances - but after a decision to separate, divorces can often only be finalised years later.

Now Government plans to overhaul “archaic” laws which currently force divorcing couples to apportion blame for the breakdown of their marriage in court are being welcomed by those who have been at the sharp end of the existing process.

Emma Sutcliffe, a 45-year-old medical writer who lives in Scarborough, says she suffered “five years of continued aggravation through the family court” because of her divorce.

Divorcing her husband of 16 years at the age of 39 cost thousands of pounds because of having to appear in court several times, Ms Sutcliffe claims. “What we see here is the potential to give children their childhood and also financially liberate parents,” she says.

Ms Sutcliffe says she values her new marriage “all the more because of the brutal experience of divorce”. “Bitter divorces make for bitter, protracted custody battles,” she says. “Hopefully no blame divorce paves the way for conflict-free co-operative parenting.”

Currently in England and Wales, unless someone can prove there was adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, the only way to obtain a divorce without their spouse’s agreement is to live apart for five years.

The proposed new arrangements will keep “irretrievable breakdown” of a marriage as the sole grounds for divorce. But, rather than having to provide evidence relating to behaviour or separation, divorcing spouses will be required to make a statement that the marriage has broken down.

The ability of a husband or wife to contest a divorce – used in under two per cent of cases – will be scrapped under the shake-up. The existing two-stage process will be retained under the proposed new system, with a new six-month minimum period between the lodging of a petition and a divorce being made final.

The Government is also planning to make it possible for couples to make joint divorce applications. Justice Secretary David Gauke insisted the Government “will always uphold the institution of marriage”, but said the law should not create or increase conflict between divorcing couples.

The plans have been welcomed by Tini Owens, the woman whose high-profile divorce battle led to intensified calls for reform. Owens had told judges that she was unhappy and that her 40-year marriage had broken down irretrievably.

But her husband Hugh Owens did not agree to divorce and the Supreme Court last year ruled against Mrs Owens.

Her lawyer Simon Beccle said: “She hopes that no one else will have to go through the long and painful process she has had to endure, as required by the current law. She looks forward to new divorce law which is fit for the 21st century.”

Lyn Ayrton, a family lawyer at Leeds-based Lake Legal, says: “It looks like common sense might have finally caught up with this antiquated and outdated legal approach to the divorce process.

“This will reduce any harmful, long-lasting effects on those impacted by the split, especially children.

“This will bring a welcome end to the feeling of being trapped and in a state of limbo for many couples.

“Having been involved in many cases where the gloves have come off I’m relieved that fighting rather than entering into rational discussion and effective mediation may have had its day.

“In removing difficulties and barriers such as blameful finger-waving, the stress and one-upmanship associated with a split may have finally come to an end.”