Lawyers are preparing for the biggest change in the divorce law in 50 years

Lawyers in England and Wales are preparing to increase divorce cases this spring as estranged couples turn to new legislation that allows them to end their marriage without having to blame each other.

The Divorce, Divorce and Separation Bill will take effect in April and has been hailed as the biggest change in the divorce law in 50 years.

Couples will be able to cite the irreversible breakup of a marriage as the only ground for divorce, avoiding the need for one party to blame the other.

The government originally intended the legislation to take effect by the autumn of 2021, but updates to judicial IT systems and rules of procedure have led to delays.

The bill, originally passed in June 2020, will allow tens of thousands of couples to separate purely without having to shift responsibility for the breakup to one country or remain trapped for years in unhappy marriages.

Under current law, divorced couples must either live apart for a significant period of time or show that one party is “guilty” of infidelity, desertion or “unreasonable conduct” in order to legally separate.

If one party does not agree, the couple must live separately for five years before the divorce can continue.

Nigel Shepard, a consultant at Mills & Reeve and a former president of Resolution, the family lawyers’ association, said many couples are waiting to petition.

“Right now, if people want to make things friendly, lawyers have to say ‘one of you will have to blame the other,’ which makes people terrified,” he said.

Simon Blaine, a partner at Forster Law Firm, agreed, saying: “Some people definitely prefer to wait. They do not want to start with accusations against their other half.

The “accusation game” is embedded in the divorce system in England and Wales under the Marital Reasons Act 1973.

Charmaine Hast, head of the family department at Wedlake Bell, said the change in the law is likely to lead to more less affluent spouses filing their own online divorce applications.

“Many who introduced themselves wanted to avoid the peculiarities of having to deal with allegations of unreasonable behavior and infidelity,” she said. “And by doing this unnecessary increase in temperature at a time when sensitivity, I think, is paramount.

Worcestershire’s Tinie Owens highlighted the injustice of the 1973 law, when she lost her 2018 divorce appeal to the Supreme Court.

Tini, then 68, protested that her estranged 80-year-old husband, Hugh, had challenged her petition after 40 years of marriage, saying she thought they had “a few years” to enjoy together.

She had hoped to be the first husband to divorce under the new law, but instead received her divorce under existing rules after the couple separated for five years.

Simon Beckle, a partner at Payne Hicks Beach Law Firm, who acted on Tiny Owens, said his client was disappointed with the delay, but she hoped “no one will ever have to go through the horrible, unhappy and costly process again. which she did. “

The demand for separation is growing. There were 107,599 divorces of opposite-sex couples in England and Wales in 2019, up 18% from 90,871 in 2018, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics.

However, ONS said the increase reflected a backlog in divorce centers in 2018, in part due to staff shortages, which probably led to more divorces in 2019. Disputed divorces account for less than 2% of annual cases.

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A number of other jurisdictions, such as Australia, Canada and some US states, already have no-fault divorce laws, but many others do not, such as Singapore, the United Arab Emirates and 33 US states.

In 2017, an academic report entitled Detecting a Bug? by Liz Trinder, a professor at the University of Exeter, found that about 48% of divorces in 2015 were approved due to “unreasonable behavior”.

She found that in other jurisdictions, especially in France and Scotland, the use of “guilt” in divorce proceedings is one tenth of that in England and Wales.

The justice ministry declined to comment, but said earlier that the new divorce law would reduce conflicts and avoid family breakdown, which would harm children.

Chris Philip, the then Minister of Justice, said in a written reply to the municipality in June that the delays in implementing the new legislation were due to the need for rigorous testing of the new system.

“While this delay is unfortunate, it is important that we take the time to fix it,” he said.

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