‘Marriage is not just a contract you can abandon when you feel like it’

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One of the Province’s most prominent Christian campaigners has said moves to make divorce easier to obtain will have the effect of “destablising” the institution of marriage.

Peter Lynas, director of the Evangelical Alliance, was reacting to details published by the Ministry of Justice in London today about how it intends to reform the law around dissolving marriage following a consultation into the matter last year.

In short, the changes would allow a spouse to get a divorce for essentially any reason, without the consent of the other spouse.

The government is to press ahead with the changes, despite an overwhelming majority of consultation respondents opposing the changes.

The reform stands to affect England and Wales only.

Mr Lynas, who said his group represents “thousands of Christians across Northern Ireland”, told the News Letter: “Marriage is ideally a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman often involving children. It is not just another contract that one party can end when it no longer suits them.

“The current law rightly allows people to divorce quite quickly when there has been adultery or unreasonable behaviour.

“The new proposals are solving a problem that few are having. In the process they are undermining marriage and destabilising it by allowing one party to quickly and unilaterally end the marriage.”

The Catholic Church in Ireland, Church of Ireland, and the Presbyterian Church in Ireland were all asked for a comment.

None issued an official comment at time of writing, with the latter two indicating that this is due to it being a purely England and Wales matter at present.

WHAT IS THE LAW NOW, AND WHAT WILL CHANGE?

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, the law states that if couples want to get divorced it must be due to one of the following issues (known as “the five facts”): adultery, desertion, unreasonable behaviour, five years of separation, or two years of separation if both parties consent to the divorce.

The government plans to scrap the need for factual evidence about a separation or a spouse’s behaviour.

Instead, there will be only a requirement to provide “a statement of irretrievable breakdown”.

It will also stop spouses contesting an application for divorce – something the government says is only ever rarely used, but which can be “misused by abusers choosing to contest a divorce purely to continue their coercive and controlling behaviour”.

The government also said: “Parallel changes will be made to the law governing the dissolution of a civil partnership which broadly mirrors the legal process for obtaining a divorce.”

Whilst the proposals above would make it easier to get divorced, the government will also retain a bar on people getting divorced within the first year of marriage.

And it will also keep the current two-stage divorce process, as well as writing a kind of legal cooling-off period into law.

Currently, people must get a “decree nisi” from a court (akin to a provisional statement of divorce), then wait six weeks and one day before applying for a “decree absolute”, officially nullifying the marriage.

The government has said it will impose a new legal timeframe requiring a minimum of 20 weeks before a decree nisi can be issued, and keeping the six weeks from decree nisi to decree absolute - allowing a chance for “meaningful reflection and an opportunity to turn back”.

In Scotland (which will – like Northern Ireland – be unaffected by the planned changes), the law is slightly different to the rest of the UK.

According to Scottish Citizens’ Advice, a divorce must be based on either the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage, or if one of the spouses has acquired an “interim gender recognition certificate” relating to a change in their legal gender.

When it comes to defining what an “irretrievable breakdown” is in Scotland, whilst Citizens Advice says adultery and unreasonable behaviour are still proof of a breakdown, since 1976 the couple are only required to have lived separate lives for one year if both spouses consent to the divorce (instead of two in the rest of the UK), or for two years if one of them objects (instead of five in the rest of the UK).

CONSULTATION REJECTED CHANGES:

The government had run a consultation into the proposed changes last year – drawing a largely negative reaction.

It drew 3,372 responses, overwhelmingly from members of the public, rather than campaign groups or religious leaders.

One of the key questions in the consultation was this: “In principle, do you agree with the proposal to replace the five facts with a notification process?”

The government said that initially there had been about 70% support for scrapping the reliance on “the five facts”.

But it said that an online campaign by groups worried about the impact of this on families then led to “a surge of late responses”, and this “strong support earlier in the consultation... was overturned at the end”.

By the time the consultation closed in December, only 17% of the respondents supported the proposal (with 80% rejecting it).

A second key question was this: “Do you agree with the proposal to remove the ability to contest as a general rule?”

Here the response was even more emphatically against, with only 15% saying yes (and 83% saying no).

The government said that divorce law is a secular matter and that “opposition to reform by Christian groups must be seen alongside the views of respondents more generally, who were broadly supportive of our proposals”.