THE LORD Chancellor's Department will head a new inter-departmental working group on marriage as part of the Government's plan for greater integration of policies on marriage and divorce.

And responsibility for funding of marriage guidance and research organisations will transfer from the Home Office to Lord Mackay, under the provisions of his White Paper on divorce reform – 'Looking to the future: mediation and the ground for divorce'.

As expected, the White Paper also brings in the predicted “no-fault” divorce system, and introduces group “information-giving” sessions and a 12-month period for “reflection on whether the marriage can be saved”.

The advent of the working group has been applauded by legal bodies, which say additional support for the institution of marriage is to be welcomed.

But solicitors have expressed concern that people on a limited financial budget will be encouraged to spend on mediation – a non-compulsory element of the process – rather than independent legal advice.

“We welcome the recognition of a formal role for mediation in the divorce process,” says Solicitors Family Law Association chair Nigel Shepherd.

“But the thrust of these proposals is to steer people away from personalised legal advice. This could lead to serious exploitation of people when they are at their most vulnerable.

“Mediation will only produce fair and lasting settlements if both parties have access to their own legal adviser throughout the process.”

SFLA concerns have been echoed by the Law Society, which says it will “resist any suggestion of compulsion, restriction of choice or of too much money going on the provision of information rather than services”.

“Access to information is important, but access to legal advice is essential and a fundamental right, whether couples choose to sort out their problems for themselves, seek the input of a mediator, resolve their disputes with the help of a solicitor or need recourse to the courts,” says president Charles Elly.