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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 September 2005, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Family law reforms moving closer
Mr Henry said the reforms would increase protection for children
Plans to reform family law, including speeding up divorce settlements, have been agreed in principle by MSPs.

The legislation will proceed to Stage Two after being endorsed by 86 votes in favour, with four MSPs voting against, while 23 abstained.

Reform of the Family Law (Scotland) Bill could see unmarried fathers and gay couples being given more rights.

Deputy Justice Minister Hugh Henry said the Scottish Executive was not afraid of tackling the difficulties of reform.

The time for obtaining an uncontested divorce is to be reduced from two years to one.

Reforms will also include reducing the separation period for divorce without consent from five years to two.

I recognise that this is a difficult and a thorny issue and there are many conflicting views and no reform will please everyone
Hugh Henry
Deputy justice minister

The bill will bring in legal safeguards for cohabiting couples and establish parental rights and responsibilities for unmarried fathers who jointly register a child's birth.

However, the Conservative Party and the Roman Catholic Church have voiced fears over "quickie divorces".

Speaking in parliament, Mr Henry said the bill would bring Scottish family law into the 21st century and increase protection for children and the vulnerable.

He added that ministers had to reflect on the "increasing break-up of marriages".

"I recognise that this is a difficult and a thorny issue and there are many conflicting views and no reform will please everyone," he said.

Holyrood chamber
The changes were debated by MSPs on Thursday

"We do not propose to encourage or advocate divorce. The best outcome would be for couples to confront and overcome their relationship difficulties."

However, he added: "Forcing people to stay married when clearly a relationship has broken down adds nothing."

Parliament heard that about 29,000 children a year were born to married parents, compared to 90,000 in the 1950s, as well as 25,000 being born to unmarried parents.

"We need to ensure that family law protects all of these children," said Mr Henry. "We cannot and will not ignore their rights and their needs."

Nationalist Stewart Stevenson said the bill was a welcome improvement from a previous focus on "punitive" measures to deal with family failures, such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders.

'Positive support'

"We welcome the move to positive support for families and away, perhaps to some limited extent, from punitive measures to address issues in families and in offspring of families," he said.

Scottish Conservatives' spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell said: "There are proposals where there is little or no evidence available from the executive to support the assertion that the reforms proposed will safeguard the interests of children and support stable families."

She added that the extension of new legal safeguards to cohabiting couples could also "adversely" affect the rights of children if one of the adults died without making a valid will.

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Mike Pringle welcomed the proposed reduction in separation periods for divorce, saying a couple's decision to take this action had most often come at the end of an already "long, slow" process.

"Once the couple has made their decision to divorce is it not better to shorten the time taken to reach a final conclusion?" he said.

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