THE LAW Society has fired off a damning response to the Government's White Paper on divorce reform, saying it will lead to a “fragmented, unfair, unworkable and expensive system” of law.
And it has called for a comprehensive pilot project to be carried out before legislation is passed to ensure planned changes are viable.
The Lord Chancellor's Department has denied that the proposals are unworkable.
The society's family law committee has condemned as “patronising” the Lord Chancellor's attempts to reduce marriage breakdowns by providing divorce information sessions, saying his proposals will create a “maze of different services” which will fail to meet the needs of consumers.
Former chair Eileen Pembridge, who led the committee for four years until this month, said if the Government had the “courage of its convictions” it would make legal aid certificates available to cover mediation sessions.
It should also keep the current legal aid system in place, with no restrictions on budget except for the provision of divorce information.
She said if Lord Mackay's proposals were introduced as they stood it would be a “great shame and a great fiasco”.
“It's an accident waiting to happen if the Government doesn't realise that there are some aspects of the reforms that, in conjunction with its legal aid proposals, will make the system cumbersome, unworkable and unfair.
“This will become the son of the Child Support Agency and the Government will have the most awful problems,” she said.
Pembridge said while the society acknowledged Lord Mackay's commitment to the principle of mediation, it would only work in conjunction with legal advice. But the report claims the White Paper's reduction of the role of solicitors ignores the fact that divorce will remain a legal process.
“The role of solicitors should remain as it is now, although an increase in the use of mediation services would clearly reduce the incidence of solicitor negotiation of disputes,” it says.
Pembridge said the way to test the Government's belief in its reforms would be to ensure mediation services were covered by legal aid.
“The obvious way to see how much mediation can assist people and reduce the incidence of divorce, and the way to get people aware of it, is to see legal aid certificates covering mediation,” she said.
“If what the Government says is true and mediation will reduce the number of divorces, they should have no problem about agreeing that people could go to mediation under legal aid certificates.”
A statement from the LCD defending the proposed reforms said: “There is no suggestion anywhere in the White Paper that anyone would be forced to follow mediation and legal help would still be available to those who need it.”