MPs are due today to debate the principle of Richard Bacon MP’s No-fault Divorce Bill.

What’s interesting about this bill is how very unradical it is. When we talk about “no fault divorce” most of us mean taking any notion of fault out of the divorce process altogether so that when you decide you want a divorce, you can get one quickly without having to accuse your partner of infidelity or unreasonable behaviour. This is the approach Ellie Cumbo took when we discussed last summer her Ground of Divorce and Dissolution Bill. It would bring in no-fault divorce for all. Notice that Ellie’s bill entirely replaces section 1 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 with a single new, no-fault ground of divorce.

Bacon’s bill does not do that. It leaves section 1 of the 1973 untouched, and simply slots in a new section 1A, creating a new way of jointly petitioning for divorce. If a married couple are agreed and cooperative enough to apply jointly for divorce by this new route, then it will be granted to them on a no-fault basis. But that’s surely a very big “if”. It’s likely the great majority of divorces would be initiated unilaterally by one of the spouses, leaving him or her still having to establish infidelity or unreasonable behaviour.

Notice, too, that Bacon’s bill would also impose a new twelve-month waiting period on couples before their agreed no-fault divorce was made absolute. That must be to reassure traditionalists, but it means a couple who really both wanted a quick divorce would still have an incentive to use the old fault-based rules to get it—or even in some cases to wait till they’d been separated two years.

No doubt Richard Bacon’s bill is well judged politically, and represents the best that can be hoped for soon in terms of reform. You have to be very socially conservative to be alarmed by his proposal. If the new joint petition procedure proved popular, it might pave the way to a more thoroughgoing reform. There is often a very good argument for gradualism, and the sort of baby-steps reform Richard Bacon’s bill represents. But equally, the new process might rarely be taken up, and that might be used in future as evidence against the need for change.

I think people in England and Wales are ready for proper no-fault divorce of the sort Ellie Cumbo argues for—as ready as they were for civil partnerships, for instance, and as ready as they were for same-sex marriage. In 2016, no-fault divorce for everyone is no radical step but the obvious and genuinely moderate reform that it’s time we had. Richard Bacon’s bill seems to me as likely to delay that change as to advance it, and if I were an MP I’d be tempted to oppose it on that basis.

I don’t ascribe fault to Richard Bacon; but I think my sympathy with him may be irretrievable. Let’s have proper no-fault divorce.

2016-03-11T12:47:30+00:00Tags: , , |