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18 NOV 2008

Iain Duncan Smith's think-tank calls for changes to family law

A radical overhaul of family law aimed at strengthening marriage and reducing family breakdown has been signalled by a new report from the think-tank set up by the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Among the proposals under consideration are making pre-nuptial agreements legally binding, official backing for marriage preparation classes, reviewing divorce procedures and changes aimed at creating greater consistency in financial settlements on divorce. It says that the legally questionable status of pre-nuptial agreements at present may deter couples from marrying, especially the wealthy.

The creation of family relationship centres, along the lines of the Australian system, to smooth the path for separating or divorcing couples and their children is also floated in the report from the Centre for Social Justice. New rights for grandparents to remain in contact with children after a parental divorce and better access to children for absent fathers are also foreshadowed.

But the report is sceptical of measures to give cohabiting couples legal rights similar to those of married couples, suggesting such a step would fuel family breakdown.

The report, The Family Law Review of the Centre for Social Justice, is an interim study, and the proposals trailed will be finalised in a second report to be published in the spring of next year.

Mr Duncan Smith said: "Today 25 per cent of children in this country live in single parent families and this trend is set to accelerate. These children are three to six times more likely to experience abuse. A recent US study found that children living with a non-biological adult are 50 times more likely to die from afflicted injuries than those living with their biological parents."

Despite its interim nature, the report gives a strong indication of the CSJ's and by association the Conservative Party's thinking and says that only changes that will reinforce marriage should be adopted.

The report says: "This review is working from an underlying assumption that marriage should be supported both in government policy and in the law ".

"Policy can and should be focused on stemming the tide of relationship breakdown. Promoting stability and commitment will thus guide all the work we do and the policies we recommend?".

The report links rising levels of family breakdown to the increase in cohabitation. According to the report, this has risen from just over 10 per cent of men and women 20 years ago to 25 per cent now. It claims, this change explains much of the rise in births outside marriage - up from 25 per cent in 1988 to 44 per cent today.

The report casts doubt on a call from the Law Commission for cohabiting couples to be given a legal right to a financial settlement on separation.

"While doing much to address perceived injustices, these proposals are obviously not compatible with a long-term national policy aimed at improving family stability by encouraging marriage and discouraging markedly more unstable cohabitation."

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