Four out of ten marriages set to end in divorce rate set to hit new

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More than four out of ten marriages are set to end in divorce, figures published today suggest. And the current attempts to reform the divorce law are unlikely to alter a trend that has already given England and Wales the highest rate of divorce in Europe, statisticians at the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys believe.

The projection of a new high in the proportion of failed marriages is, however, a "conservative" estimate, according to John Haskey, the OPCS statistician who made it, for it is based on the assumption that divorce rates by duration of marriage do not change from their levels in 1993/94. Such rates have, however, been rising.

Calculations based on 1987 figures suggested that 37 per cent of marriages would finally end in divorce. Six years on, today's figures suggest the proportion will be 41 per cent. Some groups - couples where the husband married as a teenager, or where individuals remarried in their early twenties - already exceed that figure, while the divorce rate for some men who remarried in their early twenties during the 1960s and 1970s is already past 50 per cent. In 1979/80, the projection was that 34 per cent of marriages would end in divorce.

Despite the gloomy outlook, however, just under 50 per cent of couples can expect to celebrate their silver wedding, and around one in nine should make it to their golden anniversary - by which time death is far more likely to intervene than divorce.

The numbers - which Mr Haskey was keen to underline were not a formal projection but an extrapolation based on a set of assumptions - are published in today's issue of Population Trends.

The figures suggest, however, that changes to the divorce law will make little difference to the trend.

Liberalisation of the law in 1971 and 1984 produced upward blips in divorces as couples previously unable to divorce, or suddenly able to divorce earlier, took advantage of the changes. But divorce rates had been rising sharply before both changes, neither of which had a lasting impact on the trend.

Mr Haskey said his personal view was that the current proposals would not alter the upward trend.

"Some couples will try to beat the deadline," he said, seeking a quick fault-based divorce before the delaying mechanism in the current proposals takes effect. That surge, was likely to be followed by a fall as the legislation delayed the divorce of some couples. But there was nothing to suggest that the historic pattern would not reassert itself. "I suspect it is unlikely to affect the trend," he said.

Given that the risk of divorce is higher in the earlier years, however, the average recent marriage can still expect to last 26 years.

Couples who are still married after 10, 20, 30 and 40 years can on average expect to remain so for a further 24, 20, 15 and 10 years - avoiding not only the courts, the lawyers and mediation, but also the grim reaper.

t Labour will open a new front of attack on the Government's divorce reform plans in an attempt to make the controversial Family Law Bill more "friendly" with increased protection for vulnerable partners. But most Labour MPs are expected to be broadly supportive of the measure's fundamental aim of "no-fault" divorce after a year's cooling-off period.

The Government still faces embarrassment, however, from its own MPs during Monday's Second Reading, and the free or "conscience" votes at the Committee Stage.