Justice Secretary David Gauke yesterday confirmed the Government’s commitment to introducing legislation to reform divorce law in the next Parliamentary session, which is scheduled to start in May.
Mr Gauke announced a new law to help reduce family conflict, which will mean that divorcing couples no longer have to blame each other for the breakdown of their marriage. The reforms follow a consultation, which took place between September and December 2018 and showed overwhelming support for reform.
Under the present law there is only one ground for divorce, which is irretrievable breakdown of the marriage and this is proved by one of five facts:
- Unreasonable behaviour
- Two years separation (with consent)
- Five years separation (without consent)
If a couple wish to divorce within two years of separation, they can currently only do so on a fault-based divorce, which relies on the grounds of adultery or unreasonable behaviour; this means couples are forced to blame each other for the marriage breakdown. The new law aims to reduce the antagonism of citing fault and the anxiety it creates at an already trying time for couples and their children. Placing blame can have a detrimental effect, not only on separating parties, but also on any children involved. By shifting the focus from blame and recrimination for the breakdown of the marriage, the parties may be in a better position to focus on the important issues of the welfare of the children and sorting out financial matters.
The proposed changes follow a widely publicised rejection by the Supreme Court for a divorce based on unreasonable behaviour. In the case of Owens v Owens, the petitioner, Worcestershire-based Tini Owens, 68, filed a Divorce Petition from her husband of 40 years based on unreasonable behaviour. Her husband refused to agree to the Divorce Petition and the Supreme Court unanimously rejected her appeal. This means that Mrs Owens will have to wait until the five years separation has passed before she can proceed with her divorce. Under the proposed reforms she would have been able to divorce her husband without the need for apportioning blame.
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 of 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 six months for the divorce process (20 weeks from petition stage to decree nisi, the first divorce decree; then six weeks from decree nisi to decree absolute, the final divorce decree that legally ends the marriage)
The proposed law reforms are welcomed by many divorce lawyers as well as by Resolution, the national organisation of family lawyers committed to non-confrontational divorce who have been campaigning for the reforms.
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