Separating couples in Utah are already required to take this "divorce orientation" course, which aims "to educate parties about the divorce process and reasonable alternatives". However, most do so after they have raised an action and are committed, psychologically and financially, to divorce. Proponents now want to make the course a prerequisite of filing in the hopes that it will be more effective at keeping families together - not a surprising goal, perhaps, for one of the last US states to embrace no-fault divorce, and one with a substantial Mormon population.
Concerns have been raised about privacy, the constitutional right to access the courts, and how the proposals affect victims of domestic violence (although an exception is planned for those who have reported their spouse to the police). The Utah debate will no doubt continue. However, a quick lunchtime straw poll of Scots lawyers confirmed that most of them find the concept of divorce school as bizarrely alien as I do.
Apart from anything else, such an approach would take no account of the fact that going to court is often the final step for Scots couples, not the opening gambit. Many of our clients negotiate all financial and child-related matters before instigating court proceedings by consent. Undertaking a "divorce course" would be meaningless, and no doubt highly unwelcome to busy people who have made a considered (and often mutual) decision to end their marriage.
Equally, however, where a party needs to ask the court to intervene (for example, where there has been bullying or abuse, or the spouse is intractable) it is unreasonable to expect someone to delay raising an action long enough to go on a course (or worse still, to be expected to attend with the estranged spouse). As opponents of the Utah proposal have pointed out, not all victims of domestic abuse report their spouse to the authorities and there is a risk of these provisions being used to heap more pressure on those who are already vulnerable.
On reflection, however, while a course which explicitly aims to dissuade parties from divorcing is surely inappropriate, there may be something to be said for introducing a step into the court process which encourages people to consider their approach. Mediation is one alternative to court and since April 2011, English divorcing couples have been obliged to consider whether their dispute can be resolved through mediation. While this does not apply where there is domestic violence, if parties do not undertake this step the court may order them to do so before proceedings can continue.
The draft Courts Reform (Scotland) Bill published in February 2013 contemplates something similar, although these rules would apply to all civil cases (not just family ones) and would encourage, rather than prescribe, the use of alternative dispute resolution methods. The recently published responses to the draft Bill suggest broad support for these proposals, so we may see a similar shift north of the border in the next few years.
Against this background, and the efficiency drive which characterises the current civil justice reform agenda, I don't think separating couples in Scotland should be worried about being sent to divorce school. One thing which did strike me about our Utah cousins, however, is that since the mid-1990s they have required separating parents to take a further course, this one focusing on the needs of their children during and after divorce. Since Scots law considers the welfare of the child to be of paramount importance - as most of us would want and expect - perhaps that topic might be worth a short trip back to the classroom?