Divorce case settlements 'must be clearer'

Interlocking wedding rings, one broken Law commissioners believe divorcing couples would benefit from clearer legislation

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Divorcing couples and judges hearing their cases should be given a clearer idea of their financial aims in court, according to the Law Commission.

The body which recommends legal reforms in England and Wales says the current lack of clarity can worsen couples' misery.

It wants the legislation to be revamped to define the objectives of cash settlements.

A public consultation on the issue is due to end in December.

'Difficult to explain'

The commission believes there is confusion about whether parting spouses are being compensated for sacrifices made in a relationship, or encouraged to achieve independence.

Prof Elizabeth Cooke, who is leading the project, says at present the legislation is "difficult to explain".

"It would be far clearer if the law was to state what is to be achieved," she said.

The commission is examining whether financial settlements should be worked out using a formula, as happens in Canada.

Prof Cooke says the idea of limiting the period of time that divorcees receive financial support is being approached with "great caution".

"We think that could cause unwarranted hardship,' she said.

In Scottish divorce cases there is a strong preference for support not to last beyond three years.

'Emotional damage'

The relationship counselling charity, Relate, said anything that could help make the process of divorce less painful should be considered.

But it warned that bitter disputes may have already escalated before couples arrive in the courts.

The charity's chief executive, Ruth Sutherland, said: "If individuals are at the point of fighting over assets, significant emotional damage may already have taken place.

"People should be encouraged to seek help long before they end up in court."

The Law Commission is also considering what should happen to property that a partner owns before a relationship begins.

Moves to reform the legislation began when the Supreme Court ruled last November that a man, who had left his partner 20 years previously, was not entitled to half the value of the house they had shared.

Leonard Kernott was told that he would receive 10% of the value of the bungalow in Essex, after his former partner Patricia Jones had paid the mortgage on her own for 13 years.

The commission's report, due next year, is expected to recommend further research before any changes are made to the existing legislation.

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