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Lord Simon of Glaisdale: I am again grateful to those who have contributed to the debate. The normal principle of English law and, I think, of Scottish law too—in fact of most civilised systems of law—is that the parties can enter freely into such agreements as they choose provided the agreement is not contrary to public policy. What I envisaged in this amendment is that the parties can affirm the promises now regarded so lightly by the law that they made at the marriage ceremony. They can affirm those promises. In particular they can affirm the indissolubility of marriage so long as there are young children to whom they thereby recognise they owe an obligation. Is that against public policy? Is it not rather in accord with public policy? If so, why are we so reluctant, why are we so avid for divorce that we refuse the couple that freedom to contract?

I undertook at the beginning of the Committee stage not to press any of these amendments. Having said that, and, I am afraid, being dissatisfied with three of the speeches that have been made, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell moved Amendment No. 10:

Page 2, line 2, leave out ("attending information sessions") and insert ("obtaining information").

The noble and learned Lord said: With this amendment, if I may spare the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, an unnecessary intervention, your Lordships may find it convenient to discuss Amendments Nos. 63, 65, 67, 70, 76, 77 and, although I think it is not included on the written list of amendments, 75, in the name of my noble friend Lady David.

Amendment No. 10 is as one born out of due time because really it is a paving amendment for a group of amendments to Clause 8. I hope your Lordships will not think the less of it for that reason. Clause 8 seeks to provide that before making the statement which effectively initiates these proceedings the party making it must have attended an information session. If the other party wishes to make or contest an application, that party must attend an information session. Clause 8(4) defines the expression "information session"— I paraphrase—as a meeting for the purpose of providing information about matters which may arise under the Bill.

We have no quarrel with the purpose of providing information to the parties about the provisions of the Bill. I presume to say "we". The noble Earl, Lord Russell, who was kind enough to add his name to my amendment, has explained to me that he has an unavoidable commitment and consequently has to be absent and my noble friend Lady Birk has for family reasons to be absent too. But I think I can presume to say that we have no quarrel with providing information on the provisions of the Bill and, I
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suppose, the consequences of making or opposing an application. That seems to be a valuable idea which might be extended to other areas of law. As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said in an earlier debate, it may be that a clear understanding of what is involved may serve to dissuade the parties from proceeding with the divorce. Although I think the noble and learned Lord said it in the context of mediation, it may apply very much too to the giving of information.

What troubles us is that the Bill appears to envisage a meeting as the only method of providing that information. That raises a number of questions in our minds. First—this is perhaps the most glaring one—are both parties to attend the same meeting? I think we have the answer to that because on Second Reading the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor was kind enough to confirm, in answer to a question from the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that no one will be compelled to attend a meeting with the other partner to the marriage. That is what we would expect. It does not seem appropriate that they should attend the same meeting, particularly when it may have been a marriage where violence was involved. But even where the husband is not present some women may be so reluctant to attend a meeting where friends, neighbours or other people they know can see them coming and going that they actually may decide not to avail themselves of the provisions of the Bill. It would be helpful if the Committee could be told whether it is envisaged that meetings will be on a one-to-one basis or whether a number of potential divorcees shall attend at the same time.

We would also be grateful for some indication of the kind of venue that is envisaged. National Family Mediation has wide experience of matters relating to mediation and, presumably, to the giving of information. It emphasises the importance for this purpose of accessible, comfortable and relaxed premises. Clearly, if someone who is already under stress is on the verge of a nervous breakdown because they could not get through the door or make themselves heard, or who had to pass through a group of friends and neighbours, that is not going to assist the purpose of the provision.

Will there be guaranteed privacy? Parties wishing to discuss their position as opposed to sitting silently and listening to a more or less formal lecture—and I assume that is not what the noble and learned Lord has in mind—must be entitled to privacy and confidentiality. From time to time I have occasion to visit venues where tribunals are heard. I have sometimes been in attendance when the tribunal was deliberating in private and discovered that we could hear every word of the conversation taking place in the next room. I assume that anyone sitting in the next room could hear every word of the conversation. So clearly some attention has to be paid to the venue.

All this may be particularly true of women from minority ethnic groups where there are frequently cultural inhibitions about public discussion of private issues. The Women's Aid Federation, to whom I am indebted for a great deal of advice on this, is concerned
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that these problems may bear disproportionately on wives since in any event more women than men seek divorce.

I hope that the noble and learned Lord can tell us whether the information session is seen as a substitute for legal advice and representation. The normal way for a person to obtain information of this kind is to seek it from a solicitor. There may be circumstances where those considering the grant of legal aid may be satisfied that the applicant has access to all the information and advice which may be relevant, but normally, I assume, a party will want to discuss the various orders which may be made in the circumstances of that specific family in relation to maintenance, property and provision for the children. Unless a confidential discussion can take place with a knowledgeable individual who is there to look after the interests of the party concerned and who is on that party's side, no meeting can be a substitute for a session of that kind with a solicitor. When he replies perhaps the noble and learned Lord can assist us as to the relationship between the information session and the proposals for mediation. I assume that part of the information to be given at the information session will be about the availability of mediation and how to approach a mediator. Presumably, it will not be the same people who do both. Any assistance which the noble and learned Lord can give us on that matter will be welcomed.

There are various ways of getting information and Relate has made some helpful suggestions about that. One way is to provide information packs or videos. There is a whole spectrum through to sessions with trained counsellors. Our problem of course is that the provisions relating to all these matters are to be in regulations. Clearly, the noble and learned Lord cannot anticipate in detail the regulations which he is proposing to make, but in considering Clause 8 I hope that he will feel able to share with us his thinking on how this proposal will operate.

The noble and learned Lord spoke of a number of pilot schemes. I am not clear whether the operation of the Bill is to be postponed until those schemes have operated and the results are known. Obviously that, too, is going to be part of our judgment about the workings of Clause 8. I hope that this debate itself may prove to be an information session because that was our purpose in setting down these amendments. Any further information which the noble and learned Lord can offer as to his intentions may help to alleviate some of the anxieties which have been expressed and enable us to decide whether they are well founded. I beg to move.

Baroness David: I should like to speak to Amendment No. 75, which has been allowed to be grouped with these amendments as it was on the previous Committee day, 11th January. This amendment is in my name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. It is a probing amendment, the intention of which is to obtain further information about the plans by the Lord Chancellor's Department for pilot schemes to establish the best
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means of conducting the information sessions provided for in the Bill. We would like to find out how the operation and evaluation of pilot schemes will fit in with the drawing up of regulations and the implementation of this part of the Bill.

We support the provision of information for those considering divorce, which the Bill introduces, but we want the Government's assurance that this information will be given in such a way that those receiving it will be helped to envisage and fully understand the divorce process before they are caught up in it.

Already National Family Mediation's local services are approached by a large number of individuals seeking impartial and child and family-focused information that they have come to associate with mediation and which is available nowhere else. In 1994, 16,000 people approached the then 62 services around the country. These people are already confused, often shocked, by the beginning of a breakdown in their relationship and nearly always undecided about their course of action. Many who first approach a Family Mediation service in preference to a solicitor say that they are fearful that going to a solicitor will begin a legal process over which they will have no control.

It is important that the Government make clear that they intend that information given under the provisions of the Bill will be in a form that continues to be perceived as helpful to those receiving it, so that they will feel safe, comfortable, unstigmatised and treated with dignity; and that the information will be imparted in ways which ensure that they understand it.

The venue for information sessions is important, as my noble and learned friend Lord Archer said, and it should not be in a lawyer's office or in a room at the court, unless these are specifically redesigned for the purpose.

For example, National Family Mediation offers a pleasant, professional, informal provision. The venues are furnished with comfortable chairs, with literature displayed about the needs of both children and adults in divorce. There are receptionists experienced in dealing with people caught up in the emotional upheaval of marital breakdown.

National Family Mediation hopes that it will be able to run some of these schemes in order that its professional but non-legal, child and family-focused approach to the provision of information, may be evaluated, along with others. National Family Mediation would wish to encourage the Government to pilot different combinations of a variety of forms of provision of information and my noble and learned friend Lord Archer mentioned some of them. NFM has a number of proposals for these information sessions and I hope that the noble and learned Lord's department will discuss with it the various ways of providing this service.

I should like to say how grateful I am to the noble and learned Lord for the letter he wrote to me after Second Reading in which he said, about the information sessions:
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I believe that both my noble and learned friend and I have made some comments, which I hope very much will be helpful.

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