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Divorce rate plummets to lowest level since 1971

Brexit, house prices and changes in divorce law have all been blamed for the drop

Sophie Gallagher
Friday 29 November 2019 16:07 GMT

Divorce rates for heterosexual couples in England and Wales fell last year to their lowest for nearly half a century – at only 90,871 – the lowest since 1971.

In the period 2017-2018 there were 101,669 divorces between opposite-sex couples meaning there has been a drop of 10.6 per cent in just 12 months.

But, while the data from the Office for National Statistics shows a drop in heterosexual divorce rates, the number of same-sex couples splitting up has risen.

The divorce rate rose by more than a quarter (26.6 per cent) from 338 in 2017 to 428 in 2018. Of these 75 per cent were between lesbian couples.

Divorces among same-sex couples have been recorded since a change in the marriage laws in 2014.

Divorcing couples were married for an average of 12.5 years according to the figures.

Unreasonable behaviour – which can include infidelity – was cited as the most common reason in all divorces last year.

Some 51.9% of wives and 36.8% of husbands petitioned for divorce on these grounds.

The ONS says the explanation for the drop in heterosexual divorce is just a continuation of the same trend seen in recent years – and a backlog of divorce petitions from 2017 causing an 8 per cent spike in processing in 2018.

However divorce lawyers believe there could be other explanations for the figures including the new “no fault” divorce laws.

David Leadercramer, a partner at Osborne's Law who specialises in family cases, said: “More and more people are delaying getting divorced because they are waiting for new legislation that will mean they don’t need to apportion blame.

“While some people can’t delay getting divorced, many are preferring to wait for the new no fault law. This is because they would rather avoid making allegations that inevitably create more confrontation.”

Brexit could also be to blame as the house market slowing down means many divorcing couples are struggling to sell their property and having to stay together for longer than necessary, says Leadercramer.

But Naomi Rainey, a senior solicitor at Hall Brown family law firm says cuts in court funding, slowing down the process, and a renewed commitment to marriage are to blame.

She said: “I feel that the historic nature of this reduction is more likely to be due to a change in how society regards marriage.

“The fact that divorce is at its lowest since before the last major law reform and that there has been an increase in the average length of marriage indicates a renewed commitment to it.

“The average length of marriages has been increasing over the last two decades, so this data doesn’t necessarily demonstrate an exceptional development as much as a continued pattern.”

The figures are calculated using information from courts during divorce proceedings and also look at annulments.

They do not include married couples who separate but do not divorce or dissolutions of civil partnerships, which are recorded in different data.

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