What new laws mean for divorces in UK: ‘End to the blame game’

‘Blame is another hurdle, which is unnecessary and also a bit silly. If they’ve both decided to divorce then why cite blame,’ lawyer tells Maya Oppenheim

Wednesday 06 April 2022 10:47 BST
Most couples will file for divorce on 6 April, experts predict
Most couples will file for divorce on 6 April, experts predict (Getty Images)

“A divorce is like an amputation,” Margaret Atwood, the famed novelist, once said. “You survive, but there is less of you.”

Divorce is by no means an easy process and many couples go through protracted, bitterly acrimonious court proceedings in a bid to separate from each other. The process of getting a divorce can also have substantial ramifications on mental health, with a previous study published in Frontiers in Psychology finding divorces plagued with conflict can lead to worse mental health after the divorce has taken place.

But divorce lawyers have told The Independent the proportion of high-conflict divorces will lessen when the law on divorce radically changes in the UK this April. While no-fault divorce laws were passed in June 2020, they are not due to take effect until 6 April.

So how will the change in law, which has faced lengthy delays, change life for married couples seeking a divorce and divorce lawyers steering them through the proceedings? The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 will eradicate the notion that one party in the couple is at fault or has committed some form of wrongdoing. As such, the application for divorce can no longer be contested under the new system.

Another key difference the law change will usher in is couples will no longer be forced to prove they have been separated for two years - this was previously the only other way to file for divorce if couples chose not to venture down the blame route.

Julian Hawkhead, a senior partner at Stowe Family Law, the UK’s largest family law firm, told The Independent that married couples can now get a divorce by saying the relationship has broken down irretrievably - with divorce proceedings able to be filed by one couple or a joint application involving both parties made.

Mr Hawkhead, who has been a family lawyer for 20 years, added: “In actual fact blame in a divorce achieves very little and often distracts from tackling the issues that matter. Blame leaves parties anchored on the past and does not help them focus on the future and finding solutions to help them move on.

“It is often very hard for clients to detach blame from their thinking when they have to consider what is in the best interests of their children and what a fair financial settlement should look like.

“This was further cemented by a divorce process where citing adultery or behaviour was the only way people could quickly end their marriage. Taking away the element of blame will help people focus on the important issues.”

The lawyer, whose firm has around 40 offices around the UK, argued the new system will greatly help those trapped in abusive or violent relationships.

“It must be hard for someone in an abusive relationship to be faced with the prospect of having to blame their spouse for a relationship breaking down and risk further wrath,” Mr Hawkhead added. “One could imagine situations where the wife is so in fear of the husband and so coercively controlled she is extremely reluctant to blame him.”

Between two and three women are murdered each week by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales. While one in four women will suffer domestic abuse at some point during their lives - with domestic abuse having a higher rate of repeat victimisation than any other crime.

Mr Hawkhead noted another key benefit to the new divorce system is the fact it will speed up the process so individuals who are “financially vulnerable” will be able to get access to their settlement more quickly.

He predicted a spike in divorces for several months after the no-fault divorce law is introduced but argued this would quickly return to normal - adding that this trend has been witnessed in other nations where no-fault divorce law has been introduced such as Scotland and Australia.

There may be a decline in divorce numbers in the lead-up to no-fault divorces being introduced in April due to couples deciding to wait for the law to be overhauled, he added.

“Couples will find the divorce process less painful to deal with and there will be fewer recriminations against each other under no-fault divorce,” Mr Hawkhead said. “Ultimately the no-fault divorce changes have been designed to end the blame game.”

He explained the law change will have “very little” effect on the outcome of financial settlements - adding that blaming someone for their behaviour or because they commit adultery has a very small impact on the financial settlement.

Interestingly, polling by Stowe Family Law, shared exclusively with The Independent, shows some 80 per cent of people are not aware divorce law is set to change in the UK this spring.

Meanwhile, some 72 per cent thought the reason for divorce was the result of one party having either done one thing or several things wrong. Researchers, who polled 400 people, also found 60 per cent of people are not clear what a no-fault divorce is.

Making the decision to divorce is not one anyone takes lightly. This step has historically been even harder for those – more often women – in challenging or controlling and coercive relationships.

Emma Hatley

William Longrigg, a partner in the family team at law firm Charles Russell Speechlys, told The Independent: “We welcome the change. As lawyers, we have been campaigning for it for years. Blame is another hurdle, which is unnecessary and also a bit silly. If they’ve both decided to divorce then why cite blame.”

He said current divorce law is tied to the fact marriage has long been seen as “sacrosanct” - adding that marriage could previously “only be dissolved by act of parliament”.

Mr Longrigg added: “The court had to be absolutely certain before it could end in divorce. Everything had to be a contest. That all changed in 1973 and then it became much easier to get a divorce and much more of a paper exercise but the fault remained. Other countries can’t believe we still have fault element.”

Data from the ONS shows women have been more likely to initiate divorce proceedings against men in England and Wales since 1949 – with some 62 per cent of divorces between men and women in 2019 requested by the wife.

While this is the same amount as the year before, the gender disparity between men and women filing for divorce has decreased in recent years – falling 10 percentage points since the peak of 1992 when wives filed for 72 per cent of divorces.

Emma Hatley, partner at Stewarts, said: “Making the decision to divorce is not one anyone takes lightly. This step has historically been even harder for those – more often women – in challenging or controlling and coercive relationships. To date, in order to be granted a divorce, a case has to be made that a spouse has behaved unreasonably.

“This can be a traumatic process and has the potential to result in a more contentious start to proceedings, which can put people off to the point they don’t go ahead. Sadly, this has led some to remain in unhappy, and even abusive, marriages. A partner will no longer need to be afraid as to how their spouse may react to the contents of a petition”.

Ms Hatley hailed the change in divorce law as an “empowering step” - adding that controlling spouses who are opposed to being divorced “will no longer be able to contest proceedings”.

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