Divorce law: Reforms to end ‘blame game’ between couples

A male and female model face away from each other with their arms foldedImage copyright Getty Images

Divorce laws in England and Wales are to be overhauled so couples can split faster and, it is hoped, with less acrimony.

Under current rules, one spouse has to allege adultery or unreasonable behaviour by the other for divorce proceedings to start straight away.

In future, they will only have to state that the marriage has broken down irretrievably.

It will also stop one partner refusing a divorce if the other one wants one.

Justice Secretary David Gauke said the changes would help end the “blame game”.

It follows the Supreme Court’s rejection of a woman’s appeal for divorce after her husband refused to agree a split.

Tini Owens, 68, from Worcestershire, wants to divorce her husband of 40 years, on the grounds that she is unhappy.

But husband Hugh refused to agree to it and the Supreme Court unanimously rejected her appeal.

It means the couple must remain married until 2020.

The UK’s most senior judge, Baroness Hale – who is also one of the judges overseeing the case – has repeatedly called for the laws to be overhauled, describing them as “unjust”.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Tini Owens was refused a divorce by the family court and Court of Appeal

The new rules will include a minimum timeframe of six months from petition stage to decree absolute – the legal document that ends a marriage.

At the end of this period the applicant will be required to continue to affirm their decision to seek a divorce before the divorce is granted.

The government says this will give a “meaningful period of reflection” and the “opportunity to turn back”.

In addition, a new option will allow couples to apply for a divorce jointly.

The plans come after a 12-week public consultation which showed widespread support for no-fault divorce.

Mr Gauke said overhauling the 50-year-old divorce law could help prevent conflict between parents, which in turn risk damaging their children’s futures.

He added: “While we will always uphold the institution of marriage, it cannot be right that our outdated law creates or increases conflict between divorcing couples.”

Under the current law, when one partner alleges adultery or unreasonable behaviour – sometimes known as “fault-based” grounds for divorce – the whole divorce process can take as little as three to six months.

The only other routes – known as “no-fault divorce” – take longer.

Couples are required to prove only that they have been living apart (and that can include living in the same house provided they are not sharing a bed or living as a couple) for a certain period of time.

In England and Wales, divorce proceedings can start after two years where both the parties agree and five years if one spouse does not consent to the split.

Desertion can also be grounds for divorce in England and Wales, if the party has been abandoned for more than two years without agreement or good reason.

In Scotland, the waiting period is shorter – one year if both agree and two years if they do not.

Divorce lawyer Zahra Pabani, family partner at Shakespeare Martineau, welcomed the announcement and called on the government to help move family law “into the 21st Century.”

“The wounds of divorce aren’t only felt by the separating couple, but also by their children and wider family,” she said.

“This firm commitment by the government to help end the mud-slinging process that divorce so often becomes is long overdue.”

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