No-Fault Divorce Bill Should Present No Problems
Published on 08 June, 2020 | James Brown
Perhaps we should not be surprised.
Over this last weekend, it emerged that the Government is seeking to hasten the passage of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (https://services.parliament.uk/bills/2019-21/divorcedissolutionandseparation.html) – more commonly referred to as the ‘no-fault’ divorce Bill – through parliament and onto the Statute Book
It has already generated a lot of positive momentum and not just because it would amount to the most substantial piece of divorce law reform in almost half a century.
The changes would allow couples who do not wish to apportion blame for the breakdown of their marriages to be divorced after six months rather than after two years’ separation and with the agreement of both spouses as things currently stand.
National newspapers reported how ministers want it to become law by as early as next month (https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/06/05/no-fault-divorces-voted-monday-amid-backlash-mps/).
Given that the Bill – moved by Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and his counterpart in the House of Lords, Lord Keen of Elie – wants to take the heat out of marital breakdown, it seems somewhat ironic that some Conservative MPs are intent on objecting to its progress.
Their apparent argument is that the move would prompt “an immediate ‘spike’ in divorce rates”.
As I’ve been telling the Times’ Legal Editor, Jonathan Ames, whilst I do not doubt the sincerity of their conviction, I am equally convinced of the merits of ‘no-fault’ divorce (https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/41bf79e2-a8f4-11ea-8500-5aff29860cf1?shareToken=b94dc8dc93991dbcde237ae00215fb00).
It is true that the numbers of divorces have fallen by one-fifth in the last five years alone, according to the most recent set of figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) last November (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/divorce/bulletins/divorcesinenglandandwales/2018).
Yet that headline number doesn’t tell the full story.
Look a little closer and we find subtle differences in how people are ending their marriages.
In particular, the frequency with which marriages are concluded as a result of a husband or wife petitioning on the basis of fault (adultery or unreasonable behaviour) continues to fall – down from 61 per cent in 2013 to 56 per cent in 2018.
Conversely, the number of spouses who are granted divorces on the grounds of either two or five years’ separation has increased by four per cent over the same period of time.
Those data illustrate what family lawyers like myself are finding daily.
Couples realise that attributing blame only increases the natural tensions which can arise at the end of a relationship and doesn’t augur well for discussions about childcare arrangements or the division of joint marital assets.
Those accused of bad behaviour can sometimes be inclined to either contest the charges or dig their heels in when discussing other, more sensitive aspects of the process of bringing marriages to a close.
I feel that no-fault divorce would be a very welcome development and Government efforts to try and put it into effect as soon as possible amount to a sensible step in the right direction.
There are those, of course, who have suggested that ministers are moving in response to suggestions that more than two months of lockdown to combat the spread coronavirus have generated brand new fractures within marriages.
Trying to put a figure on the number of divorces which can be directly attributed to the lockdown is pure guesswork
What I and my colleagues have found in cases which we’ve encountered is that a prolonged, enforced period together has pushed some marriages which were already under strain past the point of no return.
By seeking to accelerate the process by which ’no-fault’ divorce comes into effect, ministers are, therefore, being helpful and pragmatic.
They are aware that courts have been doing their best to operate as normally as possible since restrictions were put in place in late March but it’s likely that there will be a backlog of cases to deal with once things start to return to normal.
Any delay may make only make things worse for spouses still living under the same roof, especially those who are currently obliged to blame their other halves for the breakdown of their marriage.
Removing the need to make accusations of adultery or unreasonable behaviour may well defuse some of those tensions.
I don’t necessarily believe that the changes will necessarily prompt a rush of couples wanting to divorce.
It will instead enable those individuals who have concluded that they have no future together to resolve their differences more amicably and that’s no bad thing, especially in situations which involve children too.