DIVORCE REFORMS 'ARE NOT WORKING'; EXCLUSIVE: Irvine's Advisors Warn of Serious Flaws in Key Parts of New Law

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THE new no-fault divorce system is riven with deep-seated flaws, Government advisors warned yesterday.

They said key parts of the controversial law, forced through by John Major's Government in 1996, are not working.

A mediation scheme, intended either to make couples think again or to help them reach a low-cost, amicable settlement, is failing badly to catch on.

Many people fear that, without a solicitor to help, they will be bulldozed by stronger-willed partners.

The report from a special independent Advisory Board, itself set up as part of the reforms, is the first official indication that the Family Law Act has hit trouble.

It had already fallen two years behind the timetable for its implementation, originally scheduled for last year.

Independent mediation was a key ingredient of the new law, which allowed for divorces with neither husband nor wife being blamed.

The then Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, said it showed his reforms were not undermining marriage by simply making divorce easier.

But the Advisory Board, also set up in answer to fierce criticism, has now sent a gloomy warning to Lord Mackay's successor, Lord Irvine.

It says that trial projects have found only a 'very small' proportion of couples choosing mediation.

But the remedies proposed by the board, chaired by health authority chief Sir Thomas Boyd-Carpenter, wil alarm ministers with their potential for extra costs.

They include advertising campaigns and the slightly surreal idea of paying legal aid to solicitors so they can explain to their clients the Continued from Page One DNA breakthrough could benefits of lawyer-free settlements.

The board attacks attempts by Lord Irvine's officials to cut the cost of the 'information meetings' couples have to attend at the start of the divorce process.

They have tried using CD-Roms and group meetings of unhappy couples, which have been ridiculed as 'Moonie weddings in reverse.' The Advisory Board also hands out rebukes to Ministers over Labour's own schemes.

It says Jack Straw's White Paper on the family, published last year as the foundation of Government policy, did not go far enough in outlining the benefits of marriage to childless couples as well as families.

The board said it was 'concerned that the support of the institution of marriage is seen predominantly within the context of the welfare of children. …