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Baroness Miller of Hendon: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes to nine o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.35 to 8.55 p.m.]

Family Law Bill [H.L.]

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed on Clause 4.

[Amendments Nos. 12 and 13 not moved.]

Lord Northbourne moved Amendment No. 14:

Page 3, line 2, at end insert--
("( ) a statement made under this section has been made by one party and that party has given notice (in accordance with rules of court) withdrawing the statement;").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a modest probing amendment which is perhaps appropriate for after dinner. Some noble Lords, and perhaps all, may have noticed that there is no provision in the Bill for a party to withdraw a statement if the statement is made by only one party. To put that another way, if one party makes a statement, it cannot be withdrawn unless both parties agree.

I can see that that would be a strong discouragement to the making of frivolous statements, and that may be the argument for the provision. On the other hand, it may leave a sword of Damocles hanging over the party who made the statement if, after looking into the matter during the 12-month period for consideration, that party

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came to the conclusion that an appalling mistake had been made. The other party who had not made the statement would then be able to use it as a threat, particularly during the period between the 12th and 24th month, when negotiating or obtaining agreement on matters of concern between the parties. Perhaps the noble and learned Lord can explain why that curious provision was introduced.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, is the noble Lord speaking also to Amendment No. 23?

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I apologise to the House. The noble Baroness is correct. I was speaking to both Amendments Nos. 14 and 23. I beg to move.

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, under the current terms of the Bill, parties are required to give joint notice of withdrawal of a statement even where only one party has made the statement of marital breakdown. The reason for that is, where the period for reflection and consideration has run for some time, the party who did not make the initial statement may well come to the conclusion that a divorce or separation is the best course of action. That may be because of matters that have arisen during that time which convince the party that the marriage has broken down.

If the party who made the statement of marital breakdown is able to halt the process by withdrawing that statement independently of the other party, then the latter party will be required to make a fresh statement and go through a further period of reflection and consideration before they can apply for an order. It should be emphasised that the initial party may well be withdrawing the statement only because they have recognised some material disadvantage which they may suffer and not because the relationship has a real chance of being saved. In order for a reconciliation to be successful, both parties must be willing to attempt it.

If the party who has not made the statement wishes to attempt a reconciliation, then joint notice can be made withdrawing the statement. There is no problem about that. If not, then the period for reflection and consideration already undertaken by the parties, which is likely to have been a very painful time, should not be perpetuated needlessly. Where one party can make a statement and withdraw it at will without the other party's involvement, there is a grave danger of the whole process being misused.

Making a statement of marital breakdown ought to be a serious step, and that is my intention. It should not be used, for example, where one party wants to make a point in a fit of anger or to teach the other party a lesson. It is important, therefore, that a party who initiates the period does so with due consideration and in the knowledge that there is a risk that if they change their minds the other party by then may well have been stirred up into thinking that the marriage has indeed broken down and therefore that the best course is to continue with the period and make an application at the end of it. It is not right that one party should be permitted to play cat and mouse by withdrawing a statement unilaterally without regard to the wishes and feelings of the other party. It could then be reintroduced again, be taken back,

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and so on. One can imagine what might happen. Such a situation is bound to lead to hostility and to heightened conflict.

I appreciate that Amendment No. 23, also tabled by the noble Lord, is designed to allow a party who has not made a statement and subsequently decides that they want to continue with the divorce process to join in with that initial statement. However, this would seem to be a rather hit and miss process, as the party who has not made the statement will not necessarily be aware of the intentions of the other party until after the latter has withdrawn the statement. It would then be too late for the party to join in the statement. In any case, it may well not be until the party who has not made a statement is required to consider whether or not they want to make joint notice of withdrawal of a statement that they will come to the conclusion that too much has happened for them to go back, and that they do in fact wish to continue with the divorce or separation. The party who has not made the statement must be allowed to have some control over the process. It is important that we make the divorce process as non-adversarial as possible and that we stop the situation which exists at present where one party "owns" the divorce and gets his or her divorce against the other party. This is also why, where an application for a divorce order is made by one party, the current drafting of the Bill allows for the party to a divorce who has not made the application to join in that application.

I hope that this explanation indicates to the noble Lord what we have had in mind in the way the Bill is drafted. It gives an importance to the statement which I think would be appropriate.

9 p.m.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I wanted to hear what he had to say and to get it on the official record. There is a matter of balance here. An unscrupulous husband might taunt his wife into making a statement which she would subsequently regret and he would then have a considerable power over her during the subsequent 24 months. But I accept what the noble and learned Lord says. The balance is probably correct in the way he has it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Lord Chancellor moved Amendment No. 15:

Page 3, line 5, leave out ("six months") and insert ("one year").

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I wish also to speak to Amendment No. 16, in respect of which my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale has an amendment.

These amendments relate to the provisions for the time limit on making an application for a divorce or separation order by reference to a particular statement. Amendment No. 15 extends the time limit from six months to one year, after the end of the period for reflection and consideration. I have considered carefully the concern expressed in Committee that a six-month

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lapse period, together with the year period for reflection and consideration, may prove for some couples too short a time in which to finalise future arrangements. It is important that such arrangements are considered carefully and I would wish to avoid situations where hasty arrangements are made to the detriment of parties and their children, simply to avoid having to recommence the divorce process. However, as I said in Committee, I believe it is important not to allow proceedings to drag on interminably as this can cause damaging uncertainty for both spouses and children. I also do not think that one party should be able to preserve the period of reflection and consideration indefinitely, just in case they wish to proceed quickly to divorce at some point in the future. Therefore it is important to have a definite period attached to this. I therefore believe that there should definitely be a lapse period, and have tabled this amendment to extend that period to one year, which will result in an overall two-year period being available for couples for arrangements to be made. Couples are of course able to suspend the period of reflection and consideration if they wish time to attempt reconciliation.

I have tabled Amendment No. 16 in response to the concern expressed in Committee by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer. The phrase,

    "the earliest time when an application for a divorce order could have been made",

in Clause 4(3)(b) was considered to be ambiguous. I therefore seek to clarify this by referring specifically to the,

    "end of the period for reflection and consideration".

In the meantime, I beg to move.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor has set down these amendments in response to two concerns which I ventured to express at the Committee stage. I am very grateful. It demonstrates that even on matters of detail our labours are not in vain. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, proposes to move his amendment in relation to this, but I thought it right to express my own gratitude.

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