Proposed legislation to reduce the period of separation necessary to obtain a divorce from four to two years, has been broadly welcomed by family law practitioners. But some have said it does not go far enough.
Fine Gael deputy Josepha Madigan is to introduce the private members' bill next week, and it is expected to be debated in the Oireachtas in the autumn. If approved, a constitutional referendum will be required to change the law.
The state has the lowest divorce rate in the EU and is one of the few countries with a two-stage process, separation after a year of relationship breakdown, followed by divorce after four years.
Marion Campbell, of MC Solicitors, welcomed the possibility of a change, but queried why the period of two years was decided on.
“What they are doing is, they are pandering to that segment of society that is opposed to divorce,” she said. “I can’t see any reason why they can’t give a divorce after one year.”
She said the two-stage system should be done away with and a divorce-only system introduced.
“It takes a huge amount for people to come in to my office to speak to me across a table to say that their marriages are over, and at that point in time, the situation in the family home is awful, absolutely dreadful, but they have to wait there until matters are resolved,” she said.
“Those people are not going to wait for another year before they can institute divorce proceedings, they more than likely want it over with and they will say “just go ahead with it” and they’ll get the separation.”
Aidan Reynolds, of Gallagher Shatter Solicitors, said the bill was a necessary and welcome development. He was hopeful it would avoid people applying for judicial separation and later on applying for divorce. He said he would personally be in favour of a one-year requirement, but thought two years would be a compromise between for and against voting for change.
“In an ideal world, one year would be fine, but two years is better than four years,” Mr Reynolds said.
Seán Ó hUallacháin SC, chairman of the Family Lawyers Association, gave the bill a guarded welcome.
But, he said, he did not know if there would be a huge number of people affected by it. He said when a financial settlement is made as part of a judicial separation, it is rare for that to change at divorce, so people only divorce if they want to change their status. He also said there was still a group of people who didn’t want to be divorced and were happy with their judicial separation.
“I’m not sure it (the Bill) will have a dramatic effect if it is introduced,” Mr Ó hUallacháin said. “It will not be a panacea for people’s marriage difficulties.”
Ken Murphy, director of the Law Society said while the organisation had no policy position, he would be surprised if there was not some appetite for a review of divorce legislation now and for a debate about it.
Ms Madigan, who practised in family law before her election earlier this year, told The Irish Times she was "not at all" pandering to those opposed to divorce and had originally looked at bringing in a bill that would allow divorce after a year of separation. But having worked in mediation and examined the issues, she felt a year after marriage breakdown was too soon for a divorce. She also said she was looking for "cross-party support".
“I do want a bill that will succeed and that will make a difference to people’s lives and I have to be realistic in relation to that,” she said. “The majority of people I spoke to felt that two years was more palatable.”