Stormont considers reduced waiting time for divorce


The North¿s Finance Minister Mr Sean Farren today denied his Bill to reduce the requirement for divorce from five years separation to three will make it more attractive.

Responding to criticism of the Family Law (Divorce etc.) Bill from Mr Esmond Birnie (UUP, South Belfast) and the Rev Ian Paisley (DUP, North Antrim), Mr Farren (SDLP, North Antrim) said five years was "too long a period to deny people access to a court to reorder their financial and childcare issues".

The minister told MLAs: "I think it is important that we appreciate that parties will have spent usually considerable time in coming to the decision to end their marriage.

"Members, I am sure, understand that it is not that the three-year period starts with the first disagreement. That is the beginning of a legal process which may follow a significant period during which two spouses may have been trying to reconcile.

"I consider therefore that three years of living separately is long enough to establish that a marriage has definitely irretrievably broken down and once this is established, the parties are allowed to build a new life."

Earlier during a debate on the second stage of the Bill, Mr Birnie queried whether Northern Ireland, with its much lower divorce rate, should be introducing measures which would bring the province into line with England which has the "second highest divorce rate" in the European Union.

He noted: "Clause Two reduces the required separation period without consent from five to three years and whatever may be argued to the contrary that does seem to represent making the process of gaining divorce easier and in turn, I would argue despite arguments to the contrary, it will make that outcome i.e. divorce more frequent.

The Rev Ian Paisley described the Bill as controversial, claiming there were aspects of it which "could not be brushed aside and be told it is in the needs of the people that this legislation should go through.

"What are the needs of the people? I don't think the needs of the people are for a departure that will weaken the sanctity of marriage. I think the needs of the people is to strengthen marriage and not to try and undermine it or make an easier way from the solemn obligations that those that are married have entered into."

The DUP leader and Mr Birnie also expressed concern that adultery was not specifically mentioned in the Bill.

"I think when we come to adultery we come right to the very heart of marriage which should be a marriage which ties the woman and man in such a way that they too become one flesh.

"When that is violated it is not a fault. That it is violated is as much a crime which is delineated in the other Ten Commandments of the law. If it is wrong to steal, it is wrong to commit adultery.

"If it wrong to do other things then it certainly is wrong for any legislator to think that he can just by a line in a Bill take away the seriousness of that matter."

Mr Farren said they had to realise that the current law of adultery was "complex, narrow, technical, prurient and difficult to prove.

"But adultery is a serious matter and the Bill's proposals do not make it any less serious. We are not removing adultery as a fault fact.

"The Bill's formulation provides greater protection to the petitioner and is less onerous and less humiliating for the petitioner in terms of what must be proved."