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Brian Taylor, Chief Political Correspondent
"At present court orders designed to keep violent partners at a distance only cover married couples"
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Jim Wallace, Scottish Justice Minister
"We want family law to reflect life as it is in Scotland"
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Thursday, 20 January, 2000, 15:57 GMT
Wallace outlines family law shake-up

Couple in counselling Attempt to ease the pain in divorce process

New curbs on violent partners, quicker divorces and measures to establish the rights of unmarried fathers have been promised in a wide-ranging reform of family law in Scotland.

Justice Minister Jim Wallace said the proposals, contained within the Family Law White Paper, would "promote welfare of modern families and focus greater attention on the needs of children".

The minister also announced plans to ensure the children of unmarried parents would no longer be described as illegitimate.

There is considerable evidence that acrimony between parents is damaging to children
Justice Minister Jim Wallace
Announcing details of the proposals in the Scottish Parliament, Mr Wallace said laws on domestic violence would be changed, with the protection currently available to those assaulted by a spouse extended to cover abuse by former spouses and partners.

The new "domestic interdicts" would be extended to last for up to three years and cover the victim outside their home.

The time taken to obtain a divorce was another of the significant proposals due to appear in the white paper in May.

At present, applicants have to wait two years if agreement has been reached and five years where aspects of the divorce have been contested.

Jim Wallace Jim Wallace: Focus on children
That would change to divorce after one year's separation where couples agree and two years where there has been a dispute.

Mr Wallace said that while he accepted there were those opposed to divorce, it was necessary to provide a more efficient and less painful option in the event of terminal marital breakdown.

He said: "There is considerable evidence that acrimony between parents is damaging to children. We agree with the Scottish Law Commission that the existing periods of separation are too long, and may lead to more acrimonious routes to divorce being taken."

Future reform

The minister said there would be no changes to laws of divorce on fault grounds but said future reform might be considered.

The minister promised that it would be made easier for unmarried fathers to establish their rights and responsibilities in relation to their children.

Woman with child Many children are born out of wedlock
These would be conferred automatically on fathers who registered the birth of their child with the mother.

Meanwhile, step-parents would be able to establish rights and responsibilities through written agreement with both natural parents of their step-children.

The minister told MSPs that any modernisation of Scots law should include an acceptance that the traditional idea of the nuclear family had changed.

To that end, he said: "We propose to end the status of illegitimacy in Scotland.

'Status of illegitimacy'

"The children of unmarried parents have long had equal rights in almost all respects, and it is right and proper that the status of illegitimacy should be removed from the statute book."

Women's aid groups welcomed the new curbs on violent partners and said they hoped they would save lives.

Lydia Okroj Lydia Okroj: Hopes for greater protection
Lydia Okroj, of Scottish Women's Aid, said: "Three women were killed in Scotland last year who didn't have access to these protective orders.

"We can't say they wouldn't have been murdered if they had the protective orders but we can only assume it would have afforded them the protection they needed."

The organisation Stepfamily said it was pleased that the Scottish Executive had recognised the changes in family life in drawing up legislation.

MSPs' reaction

Director Nora Rundell said: "We welcome all helpful ways in which the law can be made clearer to make provision for variety and diversity of the family structure."

The plans, which would be implemented next year at the earliest, were generally welcomed by MSPs - although the Scottish National Party's Roseanna Cunningham urged extra legal aid for family law cases.

She said: "Access to a legal remedy on paper is one thing but whether they will be able to afford that access is another thing entirely.

Tory Leader David McLetchie warned ministers against undermining the institution of marriage.

"The surest way of improving the rights of unmarried fathers in Scotland is for them to marry the mothers and preferably before they conceive the children," he said.

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See also:
01 Dec 99 |  UK
Divorce change dropped
16 Jan 00 |  Talking Point
Has the family changed forever?

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