A shake-up of the 50-year-old divorce laws will “pluck out the legal sting” from the already painful process of a marriage break-up, peers have been told.
The Government has said it was time to end “the blame game” faced by couples, with reform of the existing fault-based system.
However, church leaders have criticised the move, arguing that it undermined marriage and would increase the already high divorce rate.
Senior Anglican bishops raised their concerns as the House of Lords debated the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill.
Currently in England and Wales, unless someone can prove there was adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, the only way to obtain a divorce without their spouse’s agreement is to live apart for five years.
The proposed legislation will keep “irretrievable breakdown” of a marriage as the sole grounds for divorce.
But, rather than having to provide evidence relating to behaviour or separation, divorcing spouses will only be required to make a statement that the marriage has broken down.
It will also be possible for couples to make joint divorce applications, alongside the current option for one party to initiate the process.
The Government’s decision to introduce a “no-fault” divorce aims to help to cut some of the conflict from what can be a highly stressful experience.
The ability of a husband or wife to contest a divorce – used in fewer than 2% of cases – will be scrapped under the overhaul.
The Bill will introduce a six-month minimum period that must elapse between the lodging of a petition to the divorce being made final.
Parallel changes will be made to the law governing the dissolution of a civil partnership.
Opening the second reading debate, Tory frontbencher Lord Keen of Elie said: “Marriages fail for many reasons and the responsibility may be shared. The simplistic allocation of blame cannot reflect reality and does not protect marriages.
“The Bill has a clear purpose in seeking to reduce the conflict that can arise from the current requirements for obtaining a divorce.
“It will not make divorce painless or an easy choice. It will not take away the difficult decisions couples have to make about their future lives.
“But it will pluck out the legal sting whose effects can be felt long into the future.”
Lord Keen added: “Removing unnecessary conflict from the legal process of divorce will, we believe, create a more amicable environment in which a couple can agree their future arrangements.
“The Bill creates the conditions for a better prospect of moving forward more amicably and constructively.
“It is time to end what has been termed the blame game. It is time to minimise the harm to children that can arise from the legal process and not give it a chance to worsen where conflict already exists.
“The reforms will deliver a revised process of divorce that protects all our interests in marriage, reduces the potential for conflict and its impact on children and is fit for the 21st century.”
But Rt Rev James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, warned the “deceptively simple piece of legislation actually creates more difficulties than it resolves”.
He said: “While under certain circumstances divorce may well be the least worst option for some couples, this Bill promotes individual choice over and at the expense of the sort of commitment, self-giving and sacrifice which lies at the heart of the marriage covenant.
“Reducing divorce to a statement made by one party that the marriage has broken down, in my view undermines the seriousness with which marriage and divorce are regarded.
“Studies suggest that making divorce quicker and easier will significantly increase the already high divorce rate with all the implications that has, both for human misery and financial cost.”
The bishop added: “The people experiencing that human misery most acutely will be precisely those who are most vulnerable, in particular children but also those partners who wish to contest the divorce, but who would now no longer be able to do so.
“To suggest that divorce can go ahead when only one party wants it does seem perverse.
“As for the children, this will further threaten the stability marriage is meant to provide and contribute still further to the growing incidence of mental health issues among our young people.”
He went on: “We will in effect be introducing unilateral, no-reason divorce. We need to reduce the divorce rate in this country, not increase it.”
However, Tory former Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay of Clashfern said: “The idea that marriage can continue when one party has lost interest in it is really a complete fallacy.
“The idea that anything can come out of a defended divorce seems to me to be extraordinary.”
Rt Rev Christopher Foster, Bishop of Portsmouth the said: “In seeking to minimise pain, the Bill risks removing the opportunity for reflection and the chance of reconciliation.”
For Labour, Shadow Attorney General Baroness Chakrabarti said: “No fault divorce is quite literally a no-brainer.
“Because divorce – unhappy, miserable, traumatic though it is – is neither a crime nor a civil wrong.
“It is a trauma, it is a very unhappy thing, and we should not be prolonging the agony.”
She added: “Locking people into a legal relationship when they don’t want to be there is not a practical, sensible, legislative policy.”
The Bill was given its second reading by peers and now goes for line-by-line scrutiny in committee.