Divorcing couples will no longer have to blame each other for the breakdown of their marriage as the Justice Secretary today (9 April 2019) announced a new law to help reduce family conflict.
The move follows a public consultation where family justice professionals and those with direct experience of divorce voiced their support for reform. New legislation will therefore be introduced to Parliament to update our 50-year-old divorce law which has been shown to exacerbate conflict.
Ministers are acting to change the law after responses also revealed that the current system can work against any prospect of reconciliation, and can be damaging to children by undermining the relationship between parents after divorce.
Justice Secretary David Gauke said:
Hostility and conflict between parents leave their mark on children and can damage their life chances.
While we will always uphold the institution of marriage, it cannot be right that our outdated law creates or increases conflict between divorcing couples.
So I have listened to calls for reform and firmly believe now is the right time to end this unnecessary blame game for good.
Aidan Jones OBE, Chief Executive at relationship support charity, Relate said:
This much-needed change to the law is good news for divorcing couples and particularly for any children involved. The outdated fault-based divorce system led parting couples to apportion blame, often resulting in increased animosity and making it harder for ex-partners to develop positive relationships as co-parents.
As a large body of evidence shows, parental conflict is damaging to children’s wellbeing and chances in life, whether the parents are together or separated. It’s good that the government has listened and taken action on this, demonstrating commitment to reducing parental conflict.
While divorce isn’t a decision that people tend to take lightly, we do support the extension of the minimum timeframe which will allow more time to reflect, give things another go if appropriate, and access support such as relationship counselling or mediation.
Current laws demand proof that a marriage has broken down irretrievably and force spouses to evidence ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or years of separation, even in cases where a couple has made a mutual decision to part ways.
Marriages are not saved by the ability of one spouse to ‘contest’ a divorce in court. Very few divorces are contested but this practice is known to be misused by abusers choosing to contest a divorce purely to continue their coercive and controlling behaviour. The government therefore proposes to remove it.
Proposals for changes to the law include:
retaining the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage as the sole ground for divorce
replacing the requirement to provide evidence of a ‘fact’ around behaviour or separation with a requirement to provide a statement of irretrievable breakdown
retaining the two-stage legal process currently referred to as decree nisi and decree absolute
creating the option of a joint application for divorce, alongside retaining the option for one party to initiate the process
removing the ability to contest a divorce
introducing a minimum timeframe of 6 months, from petition stage to final divorce (20 weeks from petition stage to decree nisi; 6 weeks from decree nisi to decree absolute).
Starting a minimum timeframe at the initial petition stage reflects consultation respondents’ views that couples ‘feel divorced’ when the court grants the provisional decree of divorce (the ‘decree nisi’). This will provide a meaningful period of reflection and the opportunity to turn back. Where divorce is inevitable, it will better enable couples to reach agreement on practical arrangements for the future. Courts will retain the power to expedite the process where appropriate.
These reforms retain what works well in existing divorce law and remove what stands in the way of resolving difficulties more amicably when a marriage has irretrievably broken down and requires an orderly, legal ending. The new legislation is expected to be introduced as soon as Parliamentary time allows.