Baroness Hale of Richmond backs no-fault divorce

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Oct 06, 2017
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Lady Hale was sworn in as Supreme Court president this week

Jane Barlow/PA

Divorce laws should be overhauled to remove fault from the grounds for ending marriage, the UK’s most senior judge has said.

Baroness Hale of Richmond, 72, the new president of the Supreme Court and the first woman to reach the top of the judiciary, said she had been involved with reforms to remove blame from the divorce process while at the Law Commission in the 1990s.

“Unfortunately that has not happened,” she said at her first press briefing since being sworn in on Monday.

She said that the measure, which must be implemented by parliament rather than the courts, was backed by the most senior family judge, Sir James Munby, the president of the family division. “He is on record as saying he wishes it would happen; and I have not changed my mind since the 1990s,” she told reporters in London.

A reform of the law to remove fault-based grounds for divorce has wide and growing support among senior judges, the legal profession and bodies such as the Marriage Foundation. Lawyers argue that it would reduce the stress of marriage break-up if couples did not have to cite reasons such as adultery or unreasonable behaviour. 

Under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, the only ground for divorce is that the marriage has “irretrievably broken down”. To show that, the divorce petitioner must cite one or more of five grounds, of which three are fault based: adultery, unreasonable behaviour and desertion.

Lady Hale, at the briefing alongside the new Supreme Court deputy president, Lord Mance, welcomed the arrival of a second woman, Lady Black, on the court, adding that she hoped it would not take another 30 years before a third, fourth and fifth were appointed.

Lady Hale and Lord Mance said in a statement that they would “continue improving the way in which we communicate the importance of the rule of law to the public”. After taking the Supreme Court last summer to Edinburgh to hear appeals, Lord Mance confirmed that it would sit in Belfast for the first time next year.

The president backed a review of legal aid cuts, saying that recent reductions to the budget had probably been “a false economy”. She urged MPs to give judges guidance so that after Brexit, they would know how much they should take account of judgments from the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

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