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THE GOVERNMENT has accused family lawyers of putting their own interests before those of families, following their withdrawal of support for the Family Law Bill.
A bitter row has broken out between the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Society over its decision to stop backing the Bill.
In a public statement Jonathan Evans, Lord Mackay's parliamentary secretary, claimed the society's opposition to the Bill was based upon "a defence of its members interests, and not on the nature of this sensible and humane Bill".
He urged the Law Society to come clean about its motives for withdrawing support at such a late and crucial stage.
Evans' reaction is an indication of the value the Government placed on the Law Society's support for the unpopular Bill as it ends its report stage in the Commons.
Hilary Siddle, who chairs the Law Society's family law committee, swiftly retorted that the remarks were "unseemly" and "unjustified" and accused the Government of not being in control of the Bill's destiny.
The Law Society announced its decision to withdraw support last week on the basis that the Bill was unworkable and confusing. It expressed concern over increased waiting periods for divorcing couples, emphasis on parent conduct and the compulsion to visit a mediator.
After a meeting called at the eleventh hour by Evans in a bid to persuade the Law Society to change its mind Siddle said: "The Bill is a mess, creating more problems than it solves. Our conclusion was reached after much heart searching. If we had been concerned solely to protect our members' income, why did we support the Bill in the first place?"
Nigel Shepherd, chair of the Solicitors' Family Law Association, who has also decided not to support the Bill in its present form, said the Government's response was "churlish".
Shepherd hoped that family lawyers could work with the Government to make the Bill workable again, and added it was a shame that it had become so confusing.
The withdrawal of the Law Society's support could spell defeat for the Government's reforms. Labour legal affairs spokesman Paul Boateng described it as a "dog's breakfast" in a magazine article earlier this month. The Bill is also unpopular with many of the Government's own MPs.