Changing times, changing values
Friday 27 October 1995
Nowadays it tends to be between a couple and their two solicitors. But prior to 1857, it required an Act of Parliament to be obtained before a marriage was dissolved. Henry VIII had to usurp the Pope to obtain his first divorce.
Since his days, reforming the divorce laws has become slightly easier and, since 1950, more frequent. In Henry VIII's time, a divorce was only available to the rich and the influential, although remarriage was popular.
It was 1857 which saw the first major reform of the divorce laws. In that year, a divorce court was introduced with powers to deal with all marriage rifts. It meant that divorces went to the High Court instead of being addressed to the Church.
Divorce remained the preserve of the privileged until female emancipation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Marriages were normally arranged between the families of bride and groom, and so expectations of domestic compatibility were low. However, by 1938, 10,000 divorce petitions had been filed, and by 1945, the figure had risen to 25,000.
The next major reform came in 1950 with the Matrimonial Causes Act, which decreed that there should be no petition for divorce during the first three years of marriage unless a High Court Judge ruled "exceptional hardship".
The grounds for divorce were defined in terms of adultery, desertion, and cruelty. In 1969, an attempt was made to abolish the idea there there was a guilty party in every divorce case, and the notion of an "irretrievable breakdown" was introduced.
The Government decreed that the breakdown had to be shown through adultery, desertion for two years, living apart for two years if both partners consented to a divorce (or five years even if one partner did not want a divorce), or unreasonable behaviour. A 1984 Act enabled couples to petition for divorce after only one year of marriage.
Currently four out of ten British marriages end in divorce.
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