DIVORCE proceedings could be changed so that custody and financial arrangements were dealt with before marital status. The Legal Aid Department said the proposal could cut costs and speed up divorce proceedings. Social workers believed it could ease trauma for children and provide financial security for women quickly. A marriage adviser said the change could encourage couples to reconsider divorce when the financial costs to them and the emotional costs to their children were highlighted. The Legal Aid Department's family section head, Mr Neal Clough, said present priority in divorce suits originated from the English law system in 1857 which placed marital status first, so the territory's courts handled divorce hearings before custody andmaintenance. ''Well over a century later, our courts in Hongkong still adopt a procedure which was designed to satisfy the Church of England and was never suited to Hongkong's needs,'' Mr Clough said in a recent proposal to the Judiciary. Mr Clough said priorities in divorce proceedings should be reversed so the court and all parties focused on child custody, housing, financial support and property. Hongkong Catholic Marriage Advisory Council chief executive, Mrs Wong Ng Yuet-wah, said child welfare should be given overwhelming importance. Reversal of priorities in divorce proceedings would minimise the uncertainty children faced because they would know at the outset which parent they would be with in future. ''Under the existing proceedings, children do not know the future [arrangements] until after their parents are divorced. And during the hearing for divorce, couples would use children as a weapon against each other which eventually will hurt the childrendeeply,'' Mrs Wong said. ''If their custody is settled at an earlier stage, their experience could be less traumatic.'' Mrs Wong said the reversal in proceedings could also encourage couples to reconsider their decision to divorce when they realised the financial liabilities and the affect on their future relationship with children. Spokesman of the Hongkong Federation of Women's Centres, Ms Linda Wong Sau-yung, said the change would give greater protection to both children and women because financial provisions would be certain before the actual divorce. She urged that the proposal be studied thoroughly to avoid negative side-effects. The proposal to reverse priorities emerged as the Legal Aid Department conducted a study to see how efficiency could be improved. At the moment, a divorce case usually lasts six to nine months and a simple case will cost about $10,000. Mr Clough said the change would reduce the time and cost. ''Realistic settlements will be encouraged and protracted litigation discouraged,'' Mr Clough said. ''Even fewer cases will be defended. Often cases are defended because the respondent is anxious about his other liabilities rather than concerned about the dissolution of his marriage,'' Mr Clough said. He said the reversal would remove the need for representation by lawyers in divorce cases which involved only dissolution of marriage. He said there was no reason why couples consenting to divorce could not get the approval by simply standing in front of the judge to confirm the facts and arrangements. ''The procedure can be as short as two minutes and this will save us a lot of time and money,'' Mr Clough said.