HL Deb 24 January 1984 vol 447 cc144-55

3.15 p.m.

Report received.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge moved Amendment No. 1:

After Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

("Bar on decrees absolute within two years of marriage.

. For subsection (5) of section 1 of the 1973 Act there shall be substituted the following new subsection— (5) Every decree of divorce shall in the first instance be a decree nisi and shall not be made absolute before the expiration of six months from its grant or the expiration of two years from the date of the marriage whichever is the later unless the High Court by general order from time to time fixes a shorter period, or unless in any particular case the court in which the proceedings are for the time being pending from time to time by special order fixes a shorter period than the period otherwise applicable for the time being by virtue of this subsection.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment would put a bar on decrees absolute within two years of marriage by inserting into the 1973 Act, Section 1(5), the words or the expiration of two years from the date of the marriage whichever is the later".

The amendment would not limit the existing right of the High Court to fix a shorter period, which was done in 1972 by the general order which reduced the time after grant of a decree nisi from six months to six weeks. Nor would it affect the discretionary power of the court considering the case to allow an earlier decree absolute.

When the Committee of your Lordships' House considered the length of the time bar on petitions for divorce it decided that one year from the date of marriage was right. As I understand it, it was felt that to have a longer period was undesirable because in some cases it might unduly hold up the making of arrangements for separation, financial matters and, not least, the children. At the same time there was unease that the psychological effect of having a one-year time bar would be to lessen the degree of commitment with which couples would enter marriage. Some people might feel that if their marriage did not work they could obtain a divorce and try again with someone else after a year, or a little more. Although, as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor pointed out in Committee, they might have to wait for an additional six months or more, it would be the one-year period that would stick in people's minds.

In the last few weeks the Law Society has expressed its reservations on the changes made by this part of the Bill and has recommended that they should not be made in isolation from proposals for the reform of grounds for divorce. The House will remember that in Committee I questioned whether the changes being made would not result in an increase in petitions brought under the first two grounds of the 1973 Act—adultery and impossible behaviour. Surely that would be undesirable.

My amendment would allow an early separation and it would not delay the resolution of financial matters or the position of children. On the other hand, it would delay for a short period the ability of either partner to marry someone else. In itself such a delay would be of little importance, but its real significance would be to help the couple who made the original marriage to think that much more about the step they were about to take. I believe that because commitment is an essential part of marriage anything that helps people to weigh up the step they are taking is to be encouraged. I hope that that does not sound hard or pompous, because I have no right to be hard or pompous, especially in your Lordships' House; but surely anything that makes for stable, happy marriages, however marginally, is to be welcomed as being for the general welfare.

Your Lordships may wish to be reminded that to delay the decree absolute is not a new concept of the law. Under Section 3(3)(a) of the 1973 Act, as it now stands before this Bill, if a claim for a divorce petition is heard before the end of three years from marriage and is found to have been presented on false grounds the judge can grant a decree nisi, but can also withhold the decree absolute until the end of three years from the date of marriage.

I therefore submit the amendment for your Lordships' consideration in the belief that it is consistent with the ideas behind the Bill as it now stands, and that it would also go some way towards meeting the reservations that have been expressed both inside your Lordships' House and elsewhere. I beg to move.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, it is with considerable diffidence that I address your Lordships at this stage of the Bill because, being abroad by long arrangement during the previous stages, I could not take any part in the debates. But having presided over the jurisdiction with which your Lordships are instantly concerned for a decade or so, I do not really feel that my previous absence absolves me at this stage.

I have great sympathy with the noble Lord's objectives in moving this amendment. Nevertheless, I hope that your Lordships will not accept it. Perhaps I may say, as the Bill will be going to another place, that I do not propose to revive the exhaustive discussion about a three-year bar, a two-year bar or a one-year bar that took place in Committee. But perhaps I can say summarily that I do not think that the present provision is satisfactory and I prefer the Scottish provision to the one in the Bill.

It is worth while considering for a moment how the present provision came to be in the legislation. In a way it is symptomatic of so much of the humbug which has vitiated so much of our matrimonial legislation. What happens is this. There is a substantial body of opinion that holds that facile divorce advances human felicity, and there are a substantial number who hold a contrary view. Those who hold the former view, when they endeavour to translate it into legislation, obviously try to propitiate their opponents either by some provision or by asserting some slogan. It was for that reason that we had the precursors of the 1969 Act which for the first time allowed divorce by repudiation—repudiation, say, of a substantially guiltless wife by a substantially guilty husband: the man who had substantially broken up the marriage. We had those measures absurdly described as "Strengthening of Marriage" Bills.

So again the 1969 Act was proposed and was subject to the propaganda that it was a "kiss and make up" Bill, whereas, as everybody now recognises, the conciliation procedures embodied in that Act were a mere futility and absurdity. So it was in the 1937 Act from which the present three-year bar dates. That was initiated by A. P. Herbert in another place. It extended the grounds for divorce from adultery—substantially the only ground—to include cruelty and desertion. That alarmed those who thought that there was danger and mischief in the extension of the grounds for divorce in increasing facilities. Therefore, Herbert proposed two stipulations in the Bill which would propitiate his opponents. One was the three-year bar on divorce, which has been so much—I think universally in your Lordships' House—criticised, a criticism in which I share.

We are in this position. That provision having been on the statute book for virtually half a century, to expunge it entirely (as I would wish), or to shorten the period to two years or one year, would understandably be viewed as if Parliament and society were shrugging off their concern with the stability of marriage.

Having said that, nevertheless it seems to me that this amendment is not a desirable one. In the first place, although it effectively puts a bar for two years on the dissolution of the marriage, that is only marginal on the consideration to which I have just referred. In the second place—and this is a drafting point—there is a reference to: the High Court by general order", which I take it refers to the rule-making powers contained in Clause 34 of the Bill. It seems to me that this is a point which could no doubt be put right by amendment. It is unacceptable that a change of that sort should be made otherwise than by Parliament in full and solemn session.

Thirdly, and most importantly, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, having declared the laudable objective of giving an opportunity for persons newly married and seeking a divorce to have second thoughts and to be reconciled, what the amendment does is to give that opportunity during the interval between decree nisi and decree absolute. Under the Bill no petition can be presented in less than one year. The amendment would say that the decree must not be made absolute until three years from the commencement of the marriage. I am bound to say that in the period between decree nisi and decree absolute the prospect of reconciliation, or indeed of conciliation, is virtually hopeless. That being so, I venture to think that the amendment is the wrong way to go about an important objective and that it is best approached by establishing proper conciliation procedures within the ambit of a family court, as I would advocate, and in fact as I have long advocated, and which seemed to appeal to so many of your Lordships in earlier discussions.

3.27 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I do not want to make another Second Reading speech or even a long Committee speech. We stand in debt to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, at least for putting down a marker in this amendment, if only to draw final attention to the seriousness of what is before us this afternoon. If we are debating for a long time today, I have that unpleasant task of having to say that my diocesan duties mean that I have to return later tonight. I apologise in advance for that in case the debate lasts for a long time. I hope that it will not.

The amendment which the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, has put before us highlights what we are being asked to approve in Clause 1. After the length of debate and discussion on the matter in your Lordships' House, we now see quite openly the seriousness of Clause 1. This amendment highlights that. We have experienced all the gravity and publicity of the powerful advocacy of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and the intellectual but cold advice—mistaken, in my judgment—of the Law Commission, but Clause 1 makes divorce possible after only 12 months of an ordinary marriage. We should think back to 24th January of last year. The eve of the Conversion of St. Paul's Day last year is not very long ago. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, reminded us, special arrangements can always be made in the High Court if there have been grievous and serious activities. But we are dealing with ordinary marriages and asking for an ordinary divorce procedure, if one can use the phrase "ordinary divorce procedure". An attempt is being made to enable an ordinary marriage partner to begin to institute proceedings to break, after only 12 months, the solemn and life-long undertaking which he and his partner have made.

I would remind your Lordships that this is not simply a Church matter, even though nearly half the marriages that are solemnised in England are solemnised in church, because in fact in the registry office, as in the church, the ideal is set out quite plainly. If your Lordships have had the experience of going to, or even through, a registry office marriage, you will remember that in the registry office, as in the church, the ideal of life-long marriage is clearly set out as the English ideal.

Therefore, the amendment to which for these moments we speak is at least a last attempt to raise a final marker of dissent against Clause 1, which will allow the breaking of a new, a young and a still developing relationship of marriage by permitting proceedings to begin after 12 short months. I very much hope that whatever we do in regard to the amendment there will be many of us in all parts of the House who will feel it right as a matter of conscience, and not for any other cause, to vote that Clause 1 shall not stand part of the Bill. Having studied the matter with some care, I notice that if Clause 1 is not allowed to stand part it will make no difference to the rest of the Bill. The clause is so ectopic to the other parts of the Bill that if we do not allow it to stand part that will not affect other matters which are before your Lordships' House in the Bill.

I believe that if we allow the clause to stand part of the Bill the Christian and social view in England that marriage is an ideal and is life-long, and there are some exceptions which are dealt with by divorce, will be overthrown to the extent that divorce is the standard situation between married partners and life-long marriage is an exception. For that reason I believe that we are probably at one of the most solemn moments of your Lordships' debates. It seems that the stability of a nation depends upon the stability of home life, and the stability of home life depends upon the stability of marriage. Therefore, so that I can make one speech and not two, I would say that regardless of whether we accept or reject the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, I very much hope that we shall be not-content to allow Clause 1 to stand part of the Bill.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I am bound to say to your Lordships that to me the amendment is even less attractive than was the amendment which was rejected in Committee, and which I think was also in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge. Despite the right reverend Prelate's plea, I shall once more try to rehearse the arguments which led the Law Commission, after a prolonged period of consultation, which proved virtually unanimous, to include the clause in its report, No. 116, and which led the Government to accept the commission's advice.

I start by saying that from hearing the right reverend Prelate a moment ago no one would have guessed that the law of Scotland had no bar at all, and that in Scotland proceedings for divorce can be brought on the same grounds as in England the day after the marriage is celebrated. To speak in violent terms of coming to the most solemn moment of our debates when, since time immemorial, since the present grounds of divorce were instituted, the Scots have operated the law which is now proposed in a more extreme form, is, if I may be forgiven for saying so, to say that which is fundamentally ridiculous.

That is the more so since if the right reverend Prelate had only troubled to read pages 55 and 56 of the report of the Law Commission on the matter, he would have seen that it was established beyond a peradventure that statistically not one single marriage would be saved if we adopted the Scottish practice. Therefore I adhere entirely to what my noble and learned friends say from the Cross-Benches: that if we were to adopt the Scottish practice we would suffer no social harm at all. As a concession to the points which my noble and learned friend put forward I can only add what he said about the reasons which led me to accept the Law Commission's modified report.

In the first place, throughout these debates I have been particularly anxious not to put the Bill forward as a kind of single-man crusade of my own. I have been putting forward the Law Commission's report after its proper methodology has been adopted, and I have not thought it right to impose any personal view of my own. Had I done so, I should have followed the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, and the noble and learned Lord who has spoken from the Cross-Benches this afternoon.

In the second place, it was because a large number of persons brought pressure on us to allow in England and Wales some kind of bar which does not exist in Scotland that I thought it right not to interpose my own view between the view of the House and the view of the Law Commission. To talk in dramatic and catastrophic terms of doom and gloom about the institution of marriage and the family when Scotland is getting on perfectly well without any bar at all is, frankly, to talk nonsense, and I hope that at last the right reverend Prelate will absorb that fact.

Next I want to rehearse, even at the expense of repeating some of the things that I said on Second Reading, the reasons which render the Bill rather important and necessary in the interest of the institution of marriage. It has always been recognised—from the very start, from 1857 onwards—that if there is to be divorce on any ground there will be a number of cases where the sooner the marriage is wound up, the better. That has always been recognised. Now the right reverend Prelate says that we must not do it at all, and the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, says that we must not do it at all. But what about the case where a person acquires a venereal disease after marriage? Are we really going to say that the couple must stay together in an unholy deadlock? What about the case where an unfaithful wife is bearing someone else's child? Are we really going to say that the husband and wife must stay together for two years and a bit before the marriage is wound up?

I must remind the House that from beginning to end of these debates not a single Law Lord, no one with any experience of the divorce court and of what actually goes on there, has supported this series of amendments. However, I would remind the House of something that Lord Atkin said when the original bar was being introduced in 1937. I must tell the right reverend Prelate that, like myself, Lord Atkin was a life-long communicant in the Anglican communion. He was every bit as good a Christian as anybody in this House—right reverend Prelate or layman. He sat, curiously enough, on the Liberal Benches. This was odd. One would have expected him to sit on the Cross-Benches. His Life quotes him as saying ominously: I venture to think that the supporters of this clause"— that was the clause introducing the bar— have not realised what the real facts of divorce cases are", [Official Report, 24/6/37; col. 755.] and proceeding to give some painful examples: Take the working-class husband who commits adultery with a woman or with women. Is he to return to a wife from the arms of his mistress and sleep with her in the wedding bed? Your Lordships will remember that among the working classes"— they were called that in those days— there is no question of separate rooms or even of separate beds. That is an insult from which a working-class woman is entitled to be relieved, and that is a normal, ordinary divorce case. I do not know what the supporters of this clause"— meaning supporters of the bar— have in their minds when they talk of matrimonial difficulties in respect for which people should stop and think. What ought they to think about when that happens? What room is there for stopping and thinking? That woman is entitled to relief from the terrible position in which she has been placed; and she would have no remedy. She has a remedy now by divorce. She would have a remedy under a later clause of this"— the A. P. Herbert— Bill by getting a separation; but I thought that the one thing that the promoters of this Bill wished to do was to diminish separations, because they all know of the terrible difficulty and the sad immorality which are the result of making young people who have been married, and in whom the flames of passion have been rightly kindled, live apart in separation. Take the case on the other side, the normal case, when a man discovers that his wife has commited adultery with another man. What is he to do? Why has he to stop and think? Think about what? Is he to have a spurious child brought into his family?…But in these circumstances he has either to stop and think or they have to adjust their personalities together while she is perhaps bearing the child of her paramour, and he is keeping her in his house and, I suppose, sleeping with her in his bed. It seems to me to be perfectly distressing." [Official Report, 7/7/37; cols. 88–89] It is going back to that that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, and the right reverend Prelate are asking us to do. Under the present law, you can get a divorce, even in England and Wales, in those circumstances if you go to the court and say that there has been an exceptional degree of depravity or exceptional hardship. If the right reverend Prelate or the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, have their own way, I suppose that we go right back to 1937.

This Bill has been introduced, I venture to remind your Lordships, because it has been found that the concept of it being necessary to prove a case of exceptional depravity or exceptional hardship is conceptually unacceptable and practically unworkable. It is conceptually unacceptable because it assumes an ordinary degree of depravity up with which you have to put or an ordinary degree of hardship which you have to suffer. There can be no such rational thought. It is practically unworkable because each judge has to decide what is exceptional according to his own notion of what is normal, and therefore there can be no consistency. It leads to the most disastrous social consequences because parties are encouraged to make the most unpleasant allegations in order to take advantage of the exceptional depravity clause, which renders reconciliation and conciliation, which is what the right reverend Prelate claims to want, practically impossible.

These are reasons that led the Law Commission, after consultation papers had been issued and after discussion, to decide that the escape clause of exceptional depravity and exceptional hardship was wholly wrong and ought to be withdrawn. The logical thing from that moment would have been to adopt the Scottish law. I still think so, but, as a concession to those who take the right reverend Prelate's point of view, the Law Commission said, "No. Let there he a one-year separation period but, if you are going to abolish a discretionary bar of three years, you must adopt a shorter period. If you are imposing an absolute bar, let it be one year, which will not impose undue hardship or encourage undue immorality." That was the basis of the clause. It is by that that I stand and by that that the House stood in Committee. I hope that it will stand by it again.

The only other thing that I have to say about this unpleasant subject is this. Whereas the two-year amendment in Committee was objectionable and was rejected, this is more objectionable and ought more readily to be rejected for the kind of reason that the noble and learned Lord on the Cross-Benches ventured to put forward. It uses the decree nisi for a purpose for which it was never intended—to prolong the shell of a marriage. It uses the decree nisi for a purpose that was never intended and for which it is totally inappropriate. It was used in the original law under which I was brought up as a means of allowing the King's Proctor to make inquiries as to whether there had been collusion at a time when collusion was a bar to divorce. It is now used for a very much shorter period—six weeks—in order to tie up the ancillary provisions about maintenance and custody before the marriage is formally dissolved. But it was never intended to hold the parties together. That would have always been rejected as wholly inhumane and wholly wrong.

I come back, therefore, to this proposition. What I want to bring home to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, and what I hope will be brought home to the right reverend Prelate is this. If they had really studied the philosophy of this Bill they would realise that you do not get to first base at all in the divorce unless it has been proved that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. For the purposes of this amendment, although not generally, you cannot get to that base unless you prove either adultery or conduct on the part of the respondent that makes it intolerable for the two to go on living together.

The fallacy in the whole of this series of amendments and the fallacy in the speech of the right reverend Prelate and the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, is that they will not understand that before you can get a divorce at any time, whether two days after the marriage or 10 years after the marriage, or at the end of 50 years, you have to prove the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. In addition for the purposes of the amendment, you have to prove it on one of two grounds—either adultery or conduct so intolerable that it is not right to ask the parties to live together any more.

What is being proposed is to misuse the conception of the decree nisi and to go right back to the old concept of holding the parties together for a period of two years by a legal device, a legal fiction, when the marriage has irretrievably broken down on the grounds of adultery or intolerable conduct and when it has been shown that it is wholly unnecessary to hold them together because of the Scottish experience. I hope that we shall hear no more of this nonsense. Nonsense it is. There is not a respectable lawyer, I believe, who would support it.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, may I raise one question? When, in the quietness of tomorrow, he reads Hansard, he will. I think, notice that I was very clear in my short speech in saying that there is always opportunity for divorce in desperate and grave cases. The noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack himself used the phrase, "grave cases and painful examples". I used the phrase "desperate and grave cases". Although I listened with the greatest care and will study word for word in Hansard tomorrow all that the noble and learned Lord has said, he will, I think, agree that the result of Clause 1 will still be that, as this House states it, after one year of marriage people can ask for an action to break it.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, I must make it absolutely plain that I do not agree with that. In the first place the test is when one can commence proceedings. In order to do that one has to get a hearing and then one has to clear up the ancillary proceedings. Secondly, as I understand it, the right reverend Prelate and the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, have always stood for an absolute bar of two years. Therefore, the first part of the right reverend Prelate's intervention is incorrect.

3.51 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, let me say at once that I am only giving a personal point of view and the House knows that their are no Whips on so far as the Benches that I have the honour to sit upon are concerned. From my own personal point of view I do not think that this is a good amendment, but I approach my arguments in that connection on, I hope, a moderate path, on a polite path, and, I hope, on a path respectful to the Bishops' Benches.

First, it is very true that the whole question of exceptional depravity and undue hardship, debated in your Lordships' House in Committee, is unacceptable to any reasonable person who has had experience of the line of cases that were mentioned in Committee. I remember very well the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, dealing with that matter. Therefore, an amendment to the law has to take place. It would be wrong to accept that the question of having to prove that a marriage has irretrievably broken down is one which goes through the motions that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor indicated, possibly mistakenly, with respect. It is not a long procedure before the courts. There is a special procedure list. If the other party does not oppose the fact that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, the average time taken by the learned judge in pronouncing a decree is precisely one and a half minutes. Such is the examination of a marriage which has irretrievably broken down.

However, to say, when parties have got to the stage of a decree nisi, that they must be knit together in a completely unholy deadlock for a long period of time or that the decree absolute cannot be pronounced for a long period of time, is not the correct way, if I may say so respectfully, to deal with the problem. But I cannot laugh at, I cannot call absurd, I cannot call ridiculous or illogical those people who honestly believe, as a result of their experience, that in the ordinary type of case—not the dreadful case of the wife who is giving birth to another man's child, or the woman who is suffeirng from venereal disease or the man who is suffering from it—young people ought to be given an opportunity of considering their position and of listening to those who would say, "You cannot get a divorce for quite a period of time", be it one year or two years. Indeed, the Law Commission were not very sure about the period because they said that it could possibly be a longer one.

That opportunity will be missed; and all those who spoke of a longer period for consideration spoke with sincerity. Some of us also spoke with a knowledge of these matters and as practitioners. There is one statistic that can never be before this House, whatever the noble and learned Lord may say. I am referring to the statistic of those who manage to mend their marriages and who do not come before the courts at all. There are no such statistics. Therefore, to say that, because Scotland has had a law which says that there is no time at all necessary before a petition can be launched after a marriage, statistically we can show—because that has been their law—that no marriages have been saved as a result of our English law which provided for three years, is not something that can be substantiated at all.

I have said that I think that this is a bad amendment but I do not believe that the House ought to be led into the thought that those of us who supported a longer period than one year were doing something that was foolish, that showed a lack of experience, or were doing something that did not show indeed a degree of understanding, even if the noble and learned Lord did not agree with us.

Having been so serious let me end on a rather, I hope, lighter note. Hansard occasionally produces a rather amusing result. The noble and learned Lord when he was referring to me in the course of the Committee stage said—and said very correctly—that he had been himself quite well experienced in the old days in divorce matters. He said that he, too, looking at me with a very courteous but pointed gaze, had been a practitioner in the law. Hansard has reproduced this at col. 970 of 5th December as: I know less than the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. Perhaps it has been forgotten, but many years ago he was actually a practitioner". I hope, with that mutual feeling of respect for each other, which I hope we will always have, the noble and learned Lord will understand, possibly better, the points of view of those who, like the right reverend Prelate, have been trying to argue for a longer period of consideration than one year.

The Lord Bishop of Peterborough

My Lords, your Lordships must not think that all of us on these Benches think the same. I agree with every word that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said both last time and this time and also with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, will withdraw this amendment because it has the contrary effect to that which he intends.

I have one reservation about all this business of legislating on matrimony, and if there is any parallel with matrimony I do not know it—I could invent a few, but it would keep your Lordships too long from tea or the next Statement. The one part of me which always gets puzzled over this is the quarter Welsh in me. I can never understand the unverified assumption which all Englishmen make, and will certainly make as regards this Bill: if it is legal then they say immediately that it is right and, therefore, they must do it. I rather wish that there were no time delay at all; that we could go back to Scotland completely and be perfectly plain and straight. If we want to go back again to what was the law of divorce—and this is neither the occasion nor the time nor the means of doing it—it would be impossible unless there were a horrendous end to this world, which some of us seem to talk about a lot, and we could start again with our new genes about which the noble Lord, Lord Paget of Northampton, spoke yesterday.

However, I ask the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, whether he will not in the interests of commonsense and experience—and I have nearly 50 years of experience—withdraw the amendment and go along with the Bill which we can make to work as well or as ill as we made the last marriage Act work, because quite extraordinarily, by the grace of God, even nonsense can be made to look something like sense for as long as our lifetime.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I, too, do not think that this is a good amendment and, therefore, I do not propose to support it. However, my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said that he would not allow his personal views on this Bill to influence matters that were to be decided. Is he aware of the great distress caused to many women's groups in this country by his comments on this Bill on the radio? I should not be doing my duty as the United Kingdom representative on the United Nations Status of Women Commission if I did not draw this point to his attention and in particular the statement, which he repeatedly made, that those who oppose this Bill or who presumably wish to amend it are doing so purely from the motive of getting publicity for themselves. My noble and learned friend said that and he repeated it on this radio programme, and it has caused great distress. I should like to draw that matter to his attention and seek his assurance in this House that he believes the points put forward in this debate are presented conscientiously and sincerely, and for no other motive.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords, by leave of the House, perhaps I may shortly reply to those comments. My remarks on the radio had nothing whatever to do with the subject about which we have been talking in this amendment.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

My Lords, I was one who did not agree with my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor over this matter in Committee. Like the noble Lord opposite, I wanted to try to get a longer period. At that time I was not convinced by my noble and learned friend, with all his wisdom. As I recollect, he tried to convince a rather sparse Committee. However, I should like to put on record that today I am convinced by all that he has said and I shall be voting with him this afternoon.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, I greatly enjoy the speeches of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor when he gets into top gear, though I must say that I enjoy them more when I do not agree with them, and unfortunately this time I do. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, is right to point out that one or two of the adjectives used by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor in describing the speech of the right reverend Prelate were perhaps a little extreme.

In a way, I am some distance away from the whole of this problem. I have been concerned—as most of us have—with a number of happy marriages, some close, some far. From my point of view, it seems to be a question of only one thing: will the falling out of love of a couple, and the tendency which falling out of love has to lead to hatred, be more damaging for the children than the public break-up of that marriage? That is the only matter which I ever consider when I am consulted by friends or relations about divorce. I believe it is the only thing that matters. I do not believe in the sacrament of marriage as something which happens at marriage; I believe it is something which happens afterwards and which you grow into, but that is quite a different point.

That is all I want to say. I thought that the only matter that is important in this discussion had not been mentioned, and I thought that I would mention it. Meanwhile I am happy to agree—not only this time but reasonably often—with the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, I am most grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate and I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for the detailed and courteous way in which he dealt with my amendment. Perhaps I could just correct one point of fact in the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. The idea of giving the High Court power to issue a general order to vary the period between a decree nisi and a decree absolute is already in the 1973 Act. I take no credit for that.

The idea behind this amendment, which I put forward after a certain amount of consultation with those who have a knowledge of, or who practice in, the family courts, was to slow down the process of divorce in order to provide more stability to marriage, but to do so in a way that would not hold the couple in a relationship which by then would be merely one of pain and grief. Therefore, it seemed to me to be worth exploring whether or not there was some way to get as far as a decree nisi and to get all the mechanical and important arrangements concerning finance and children settled and out of the way, and just to hold one thing back—the decree absolute. It was not my intention particularly to use the period between the decree nisi and the decree absolute as a period in which, if it were made longer, the couple could be brought together. I, too, do not think that that is realistic. I accept the advice given by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack and given by other noble Lords, and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.