HC Deb 17 October 1969 vol 788 cc704-7

Lords Amendment No. 9: In page 3, line 36, leave out Clause 4, and insert New Clause "A"— A.—(1) The respondent to a petition for divorce in which the petitioner alleges any such fact as is mentioned in paragraph (e) of section 2(1) of this Act may oppose the grant of a decree nisi on the ground that the dissolution of the marriage will result in grave financial or other hardship to him and that it would in all the circumstances be wrong to dissolve the marriage. (2) Where the grant of a decree nisi is opposed by virtue of this section, then,—

  1. (a) if the court is satisfied that the only fact mentioned in the said section 2(1) on which the petitioner is entitled to rely in support of his petition is that mentioned in he said paragraph (e), and
  2. (b) if apart from this section it would grant a decree nisi,
the court shall consider all the circumstances, including the conduct of the parties to the marriage and the interests of those parties and of any children or other persons concerned, and if the court is of opinion that the dissolution of the marriage will result in grave financial or other hardship to the respondent and that it would in all the circumstances be wrong to dissolve the marriage it shall dismiss the petition. (3) For the purposes of this section hardship shall include the loss of the chance of acquiring any benefit which the respondent might acquire if the marriage were not dissolved.

Mr. Abse

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said Amendment.

This is a long and apparently cumbersome Amendment, but, as those who have followed the Bill will see, it is not nearly so formidable as it may appear. It has been put in this form so as to ensure complete understanding of what is intended. Until the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) drew our attention to the fact, I doubt whether it was fully appreciated, even by the sponsors, that the Clause originally meant that it was possible for a divorce decree to be opposed in all circumstances on the grounds that it would result in grave financial or other hardship.

I am sure that the whole House was determined that, where the grounds for a petition were a five-year separation, it was important that the respondent should be totally protected as far as humanly possible. We wanted to ensure that a defence was available, immediately, that the dissolution would result in grave financial or other hardship. But it could not have been the general intention to suggest that that defence should be available when a petition was based on other grounds.

As Viscount Dilhorne said in the other place, it would be extraordinary if a wealthy or comfortably-off woman were founding a petition on the basis of the continued adulteries of her husband, and he could then obstruct the petition with a defence that he would suffer financial hardship as a consequence.

In these days, when everyone is concerned that there should be no unnecessary expenditure, particularly through the Legal Aid Fund, it would be most unfortunate if this defence were made, frivolously or for more sinister motives, and the court had to examine all the circumstances of the marriage and the interests of all concerned and squander its time in making such a prolonged inquest into every one of these cases when, in the end, it would prove unnecessary.

Therefore, I think that the object of another place was to make certain that the courts should not be burdened by frivolous defences, that public expenditure should not unnecessarily be incurred, and that, at the same time, the protection necessary for the wife who has been apart from her husband for five years should be maintained. I think that as the Clause is now drafted that objective is attained.

Sir L. Heald

When I first read the new Clause I was doubtful about it, but I am now satisfied that it is right. It seemed at first that the protection given to the respondent was being narrowed in a manner that might be unfair. I do not think that it is necessary to discuss the matter at any length. I was quite sure, from his attitude throughout, that the noble Lord who moved the alternative Clause would have had in mind very much the desirability of not narrowing that protection unduly. There is no doubt that the very clear explanation given by the hon. Gentleman is sound, and I support it.

Mr. Marcus Worsley (Chelsea)

As one who has always put a great deal of emphasis on Clause 4, I had certainly always thought of it in terms of Clause 2(1)(e). Therefore, I am happy with the change that is being made, for the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman, and for the additional reason that I think that as the Clause left this House, and as applying to the other paragraphs of Section 2(1), it could have brought into the law an uncertainty which would have been thoroughly undesirable. Whatever we think about the Bill, we certainly do not want to legislate in an any more uncertain way than we can avoid.

For those reasons, the House would be well advised to agree with their Lordships in this case.

Mr. Percival

I echo that last point. It will be no surprise to the sponsors to know that the fact that something to which apparently I drew their attention has resulted in making divorce easier in some circumstances will give me no great pleasure. But it gives me great satisfaction that their Lordships have done, and the promoters have accepted, something that will make the law clearer, and prevent this House from parting with yet another piece of legislation which leads only to interminable litigation.

I am one of those who feel that just as important as the motives and ideals behind legislation is the form which it takes. I am not sure that the second is not even more important than the first. Therefore, I welcome the Amendment and congratulate the sponsors on accepting it, because I think that it will have the effect of saving us from providing yet another source of much litigation.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords Amendment agreed to.

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