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Committee making fast progress in Divorce Bill debate

The Parliamentary Committee for the Consideration of Bill has started its detailed scrutiny of the Bill introducing divorce, with fast progress being made in a meeting lasting several hours yesterday.

Agreement was reached on the clause that defines the way spouses apply for divorce. It was agreed that each of the spouses has the right to file for divorce. Where the spouses agree, they can file a joint application with the competent Civil Court.

Discussion focused mainly on Clause 66 of the Civil Code which establishes the four-year separation (in the previous five years) as a condition for an application for divorce.

Questions relating to how the separation was to be defined, especially if the couple continued to live in the same house, were raised. Evarist Bartolo (PL) said divorce should not only be available to spouses who can afford to live in separate residences but also to couples who cannot afford this luxury and are still living under the same roof.

Marie Louise Coleiro Preca (PL) said that the court had the means to verify the truth in such situations to curb abuse. Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando (PN) said that there was agreement in the PN parliamentary group that there should be no form of advantage to those residing in separate residences.

Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco said that the text of the bill was similar to that in Irish law, adding that judges had to interpret this clause by looking at the original source.

Dr Debbie Schembri, leader of the Divorce Movement, who was present for the debate together with Attorney General Peter Grech and Dr David Thake, said that the wording on living apart had been taken from Irish legislation.

The committee also discussed how, in non-consensual separation, the four year-period required for divorce had to apply from the date that the application for separation was made.

In reply to comments by Dr deMarco, that there should not be any discrimination between no fault and fault divorce in the filing of the application, Dr Schembri said that this was covered in the PL proposal which avoided misinterpretation. It gave discretion to the court to decide on what type of proof one had to bring to ascertain the four-year period of living apart.

Dr deMarco disagreed with the mention of marriage breakdown in the Labour amendment as this would lead to confusion between fault and no fault divorce. He said there was no need to over legislate.

Jean Pierre Farrugia (PN) referred to maintenance of disabled persons. He said this had to include persons with chronic mental illness. There was a lacuna in Maltese laws on the degree of mental disabilities. Maintenance had to be proportional to the degree of disability.

Dr Pullicino Orlando replied that disability covered a wide spectrum of cases.

Carmelo Abela (PL) said that besides maintenance one had to consider entitlement to social benefits given to people with disability.

Discussion also ensued on the extension of maintenance to youths studying up to the age of 23 years. Dr Schembri said that this was necessary because once young people reached the age of 18 they currently had to file a court case to retain maintenance if they were still dependant on the custodial parent. She added that when circumstances changed in the granting of maintenance and the parties disagreed, an application had to be filed in court for a judge to decide the issue.

Owen Bonnici (PL) said that the opposition wanted to change the original proposal on the step-parent to ensure that maintenance of a child from the first marriage remained the obligation of the natural parent. Dr Pullicino Orlando emphasised that the clause was inserted to protect fostered and adopted children. Dr Zammit Dimech said that one also had to consider that the child was living in new family unit and had to be integrated within that unit.

Dr Schembri said conflict arose where the parent of the child was unknown or where the parent had abandoned the family and could not be located.

Ms Coleiro Preca said that natural parents had to carry their responsibilities. Where the parent abandoned the family or was living on limited means, the state had to intervene.

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