HL Deb 13 May 1993 vol 545 cc1433-7

7.24 p.m.

The Earl of Arran rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th April be approved.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, with the leave of your Lordships I shall speak also to the draft Family Law (Northern Ireland Consequential Amendments) Order 1993 which was laid before the House on the same date.

The main order makes a number of important changes in family law in Northern Ireland. The opportunity is taken to amend the law relating to the prohibited degrees of relationship in marriage, the publication of press notices in register office marriages, domestic violence and the procedure for obtaining a divorce. The order also contains provisions to improve the system for the collection and enforcement of maintenance payments.

Articles 6 to 11 of the order contain provisions to extend the powers of the High Court, divorce county courts and courts of summary jurisdiction to specify the method of payment to be employed when making or dealing with a maintenance order.

Article 3 removes the requirement for the parties to certain register office marriages to publish notices of their intention to marry in the press where at least one of the parties fails to state a place of worship usually attended in the notice of marriage. This requirement, which serves no useful purpose in modern times, has been strongly criticised by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights and others both as an invasion of the privacy of the couple and as something which is discriminatory to those who seek a civil rather than a religious ceremony.

Article 14 relates to the law on domestic violence in Northern Ireland. Paragraph (1) replaces Article 19 of the Domestic Proceedings (Northern Ireland) Order 1980 with a new provision to make the breach of a personal protection order or an exclusion order a specific criminal office. Paragraph (2) amends Article 21 of the Domestic Proceedings (Northern Ireland) Order 1980 and streamlines the procedure for obtaining ex parte interim personal protection and exclusion orders.

Article 15 amends the Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 and removes the requirement for the court to hear the petitioner's oral testimony in divorce cases based on two years' separation with consent or five years' separation. This will enable rules of court to be made to devise a new procedure for those cases, which may be similar to the "special procedure" currently in use in England and Wales.

The removal of the oral evidence requirement will spare the petitioner the humiliation of having to appear in open court and publicly recite the details of the marriage breakdown. It will also produce a considerable saving in time expended by the judiciary on divorce work and will enable court room time to be used more efficiently.

I wish to reassure your Lordships that this provision will not remove divorce from the courts' supervision and will not reduce the dissolution of marriage to an administrative formality. We are satisfied that this procedural change will not affect the message, enshrined in the law, that marriage is a serious and permanent commitment and that divorce represents a fundamental change in a person's legal status.

The order effects some useful and important reforms in family law in Northern Ireland and as such I commend it to your Lordships' House.

The consequential amendments order makes amendments to the Maintenance Orders Act 1950, which Act extends throughout the United Kingdom. The amendments are purely consequential reflecting the maintenance enforcement provisions in the main order. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 14th April be approved.—(The Earl of Arran.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, again I thank the Minister for explaining the provisions of the order. It seems to us to be moving family law in the right direction. It is supported by these Benches. I am certainly not unmindful of the importance of each of the 11 changes effected by the order. However, perhaps I may single out two of the articles which appear to me to be sensitive and perceptive.

First, I am sure that Article 12 will bring satisfaction to wives who are being treated with violence by their husbands. The article allows the police henceforth to institute proceedings in breach of a personal protection order or an exclusion order. Violence does not cease to be violence merely because it is violence within marriage. Article 12 therefore gives effect to an important and overdue reform.

I, for my part, also have special praise for the first article, which is even more overdue. As the Minister said, it gives effect to a recommendation of the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, so it seems to remove an unjust and inequitable provision which I believe has its origin in 19th century legislation.

Having praised the order, I have to say that I believe that in Northern Ireland family law is an area where the department has to do some hard and careful thinking and listening. Further changes are required. Clearly, Northern Ireland must move in the direction laid down by the Children Act and.we look forward to early legislation in that respect.

However, as the order is called a family law order, I trust that it is appropriate for me to touch upon one other issue. A week ago, at a meeting in one of the Committee rooms, a number of noble Lords, under the auspices of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children—the chairman of which is the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull—met a large and influential deputation of professional workers in the health and social services fields in Northern Ireland. They had travelled to Westminster to convey to us their deep anxiety about the Department of Health's intention to encourage the setting up of community trusts to deliver child care services, among other services. They had travelled to Westminster because they found it difficult to obtain a hearing in Northern Ireland.

That deputation stressed to us that the department's policy was totally inappropriate. The members assumed that the department's policy resulted from a slavish following of the GB model, without recognising that the organisation of the health and social services in Northern Ireland must be undertaken differently. The noble Earl presides over the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and I envisage that he will receive the deputation's request to reconsider the policy. I therefore urge the Minister and the department to listen carefully to the anxieties which, I am assured, are being voiced right across Northern Ireland. I am not certain what comfort the noble Earl can give me which we can convey to the deputation that came here from Northern Ireland.

Finally, I have a couple of straightforward questions which I mentioned in a letter to the Minister. We should like to know how many divorce petitions have been filed in Northern Ireland during each of the past three years; how many decrees absolute were granted in respect of each of those years; how many child custody orders were made in each of those years; and how many children there are in care in Northern Ireland. I should be grateful if the Minister could provide that information, as we believe that it is relevant and important to a discussion of family law in Northern Ireland.

Turning to the consequential order, we are pleased to give it our full support.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Meston

My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Earl for his explanation. All the provisions which he has introduced are welcome. It always seems rather strange that changes in the law in Northern Ireland seem to lag so far behind those which are made in England and Wales, and Scotland. However, that means that when they come to be considered in the Northern Ireland context, they will at least have stood the test of time in this part of the United Kingdom.

Here, among other matters, we have the equivalent of the Marriage (Prohibited Degrees of Relationship) Act 1986 and the Maintenance Enforcement Act of 1991. I had the privilege and responsibility of introducing the 1986 Act in your Lordships' House. It was the product of a report by the Church of England under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lady Seear. The Bill produced extensive debate at every stage of its progress through your Lordships' House and I recall the difficulties which we had and the need to impose the nearest one is ever likely to come to a three-line Whip on the Bench of Bishops. The Bill passed through another place without debate in about three minutes flat.

The 1986 Act in England, Wales and Scotland set men free to marry their mothers-in-law. It will not surprise noble Lords to realise that it has not shaken civilisation to its roots nor caused enormous queues at the churches or registry offices. However, it met a few deserving cases. I recall that in the weeks following the implementation of the Act, I received a fairly steady stream of small boxes of wedding cake, and I hope that the noble Earl is similarly blessed.

As to the 1991 Act for maintenance enforcement in England and Wales, which is now to be introduced in Northern Ireland, it adds to the armoury of enforcement of maintenance orders dealing with the more recalcitrant maintenance payers and giving certainty to those who are the recipients of maintenance.

I also welcome the improved mechanisms for dealing with exclusion and protection orders and the new limits on oral evidence in undefended divorce cases. Simply to read that it is now, in 1993, necessary to provide for that under the procedures in Northern Ireland, makes one realise how far behind the Province lags. In England and Wales, undefended divorces have not required oral evidence for many years. That is certainly a step in the right direction in sparing parties the ordeal of having to give oral evidence in open court. For those reasons, we welcome all these improvements.

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, again I thank both the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Meston, for their welcome remarks about the order. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to further developments in family law which he considered desirable. I can certainly tell him that the drafting is now complete on the children order and that we are considering arrangements for its publication.

The noble Lord also raised a number of specific questions relating to divorce in Northern Ireland. In reply, I can tell him that factually there were: 2,401 divorce petitions filed in Northern Ireland in 1989; 2,281 filed in 1990; and 2,619 in 1991. Figures for 1992 are, I understand, not yet available.

In the same years, the number of decrees absolute of divorce were: 1,812 in 1989; 1,893 in 1990; and 2,301 in 1991. The numbers of child custody orders are not available, but the numbers of children involved will give the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, an indication. In 1989, 3,014 children were involved; in 1990 it was 3,231, and in 1991, 3,795.

In 1990 and 1991, approximately 25 per cent, of divorcing spouses were childless, while most divorcing spouses had two children. In the years 1989 to 1991, no orders were made under Article 46 of the Matrimonial Causes (Northern Ireland) Order 1978 committing children to care.

As regards the deputation on community care attending a meeting in your Lordships' House at which the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, was present, yes, I shall certainly undertake to see such a deputation at the appropriate time. I suggest that that should be during the consultation period, which I think will start in some two or three weeks' time. When the consultation period commences I shall look forward to seeing a deputation on this matter, but in the meantime I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, that all will be well as regards community care in Northern Ireland. It is my job to convince people that that is the case and that is certainly what I intend to do when the deputation comes to see me.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Meston, for all his helpful and interesting remarks. I certainly agree with him that the provisions have stood the test of time.

On Question, Motion agreed to.