HC Deb 28 May 1937 vol 324 cc568-70

11.17 a.m.

Sir Patrick Hannon

I beg to move, in page 5, line 33, to leave out Subsection (2).

As I read the Clause, it is another means of facilitating the breaking up of family life in this country. My hon. Friends and I feel very strongly that the presumption should not be based upon the mere absence of one of the parties but upon the actual facts. Every step taken in the Bill makes divorce easier, and particularly makes it easier in the case of poor people. Most of the people who go to the divorce courts in this country are in very poor circumstances. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] In some of the cases that come before the courts the people are poor. I do not think this House should facilitate divorce without taking adequate steps for the children. This Sub-section, by allowing the termination of a period of separation to be the basis of divorce, is opening the door wider.

11.19 a.m.

Lieut.-Commander Agnew

I beg to second the Amendment.

The Sub-section introduces a new principle. In the law as it stands to-day there are processes whereby people can become beneficiaries under a will where it is believed, or where they can persuade a Court to believe, that the person from whom they would benefit has been such a long time away from them, and utterly unheard-of by anybody, that death can be presumed. It appears to us that the provisions of the law in this respect are quite sufficient, and that it is unnecessary and undesirable to create a special favour in the case of people who wish to obtain a divorce because their other parties have been away from them for a long period. It does not matter how long that period may be. It seems to us that the ordinary processes of the law for Probate and Chancery purposes should be quite sufficient for the purposes of possible dissolution of the marriage tie, and that it is undesirable that the Sub-section should be allowed to stand.

11.21 a.m.

Mr. Maxwell Fyfe

There is one aspect of this matter which is conclusive against the Amendment which has been proposed by my hon. Friend. Members are no doubt aware that, at the present time, absence for seven years, with no knowledge of the existence, is a defence to the crime of bigamy. Anyone who has had experience of the courts knows that one of the most tragic aspects of cases of bigamy during the last few years has been that people of moderate or poor circumstances have been unable to take proceedings under the present complicated rules for the presumption of death. They have heard nothing of the other party to the marriage, and, with a perfectly clear and innocent mind, have contracted another marriage. The other party has turned up, they have been acquitted on their defence, and then they have had to face the position that they are branded as unmarried, and their children are branded as bastards. I cannot imagine that this House will allow that position to go on.

11.23 a.m.

The Solicitor-General

It is necessary for me to say a word as regards the law. My hon. Friends have seemed to assume that the making of an order presuming death permits a valid marriage. That is not so at all. Suppose the order of presumption of death had been made under the present law, the evil that this Bill seeks to rectify would be no nearer rectification. It would not be a valid marriage if the person presumed to be dead turned up. In the circumstances, my hon. Friends will probably not wish to divide the House upon their Amendment.

Lieut.-Commander Agnew

Do I understand that it would not be a valid marriage if the other party subsequently appeared? Is it suggested that the other person who appears after all that time is not the real husband or wife?

The Solicitor-General

Big questions of principle divide hon. Members on matters arising from the Bill, and it is not my duty to embark upon them. All I am saying is that it would not be right to leave the House under the impression that you can get over the difficulty by means of the existing law. Presumption of death obtained in a court of law means nothing if the person presumed dead proves to be alive.

11.25 a.m.

Mr. George Griffiths

I want to refute the statement made by the hon. Member for Moseley (Sir P. Hannon) to the effect that the majority of applications for divorces were from working-class people. I want to say emphatically that it is the other way about—that, where you get one divorce among the workers, you get 40 among rich people.

Amendment negatived.