Margaret Thatcher and Divorce and LASPO

There is a lot in the papers and on TV following the death of Margaret Thatcher and she is clearly able to cause as much controversy with her passing as she did when she was alive. Certainly the world is a very different place. Some say she changed Britain for the better, others say she did not.

One thing I do remember is that a few years ago is that a Professor Jackson of Surrey University produced some research to show that Britain’s happiest year was in 1976. There were programmes on TV following this. This was of course the year Southampton won the FA Cup and their manager lived nearby to where I lived (and I support Southampton) and I have good memories from that year.I will paste an extract from an article I found via google on the Daily Telegraph website, which explains the reasoning.”… Prof Jackson’s MDP – Measure of Domestic Progress – still makes it [1976] the best year on record, though only just. MDP has hardly changed since the 1950s,
said the study, peaking in 1976 before falling in the 1980s and rising again in the 1990s before levelling out again since the millennium. Other measures, such as GDP, focus more on the gap between earnings and inflation to judge quality of life in terms of how much the country produces, spends and borrows. MDP looks at crime rates, energy consumption, pollution and public sector investment. The reason MDP rose to its peak in the mid 1970s was because of a fall in income inequality and a rise in the national capital stock thanks to a boom in public sector investment: two other MDP measures. In contrast, social costs have risen 600 per cent with a 13-fold increase in the costs of crime and a four-fold increase in the costs of family breakdown. The findings are already dividing other economists who believe things have got better since 1976. Prof Nicholas Crafts, of the London School of Economics, said measures of well-being ought to take into account rising life expectancy and technological progress. Neither is included in the MDP.
But Prof Jackson said: “If we are relying for growth on an economy with rising crime, growing inequality and the destruction of the environment, that’s not a very good way to proceed. “There is this comforting myth that things are getting better but there has been a flatness in the index of quality of life for years. We all want to say we’re better off. But then there are the hidden costs of climate change that we may not have to face until the future. “Most people believe they are better off now than they were in the past but that is because many want to believe it, he said”

Whether this is correct or not is clearly a matter of opinion. This is not a political blog. What is interesting is the increase in the cost (to the country of family breakdown. There is certainly an increased divorce rate. This is not necessarily all bad, as it is easier to escape from domestic abuse than it was. We now live in very different times. This brings me to the whole point of this blog, which is Divorce Law!

One thing that Margaret Thatcher and her successors (of all political persuasions) have not had the courage to do is to properly reform the Law on Divorce. Our Law on Divorce is the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973! As lawyers we regularly have to go through the charade of drafting divorce papers based on adultery or unreasonable behaviour and sometimes desertion or two years separation. We did have the bungled attempt at reform under John Major with the unimplemented parts of the Family Law Act 1996. As a Mediator and Collaborative Lawyer it is very important to dampen down conflict between couples and get them into a problem solving frame of mind. This is part of the key to quicker, cheaper and more durable resolution of all issues around divorce and separation. But the Law defines the couple as being in conflict. There is talk of David Cameron bringing forward legislation on Gay Marriage, but please, can we have a new Divorce Law for everyone? One which abolishes blame and fault (no one is innocent? (Mostly)). The terminology of petitioner and respondent and of custody and access are very deep-rooted. This is very negative as they make conflict a starting point for divorce. It doesn’t have to be so.

Despite the cutbacks to legal Aid, the emphasis on mediation with the implementation of LASPO (Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2013) is a step forward. But, let’s have a proper reform of divorce law. The social costs of relationship breakdown are clearly enormous and the individual costs are also enormous not just for couple, but also for their children. Perhaps families could be better supported? And why withdraw Legal Aid from most for the divorce itself? OK there is an argument for the state not paying for individuals to end relationship. But most fixed fees for divorce + VAT + Court Fees mean that people are spending the best part of £1000 for a bit of paper saying they are no longer married, which could be achieved by a simple form and cooling off period for a fraction of the price! And this is before the couple get onto sorting out financial issues and children arrangements. It was simpler to cut Legal Aid than look at the system as a whole! The consequence will be those on low incomes will be forced to stay married. Back to the 1970’s? (that’s un-progress for you!) But, in a more complex world.

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