The start of the new year brings good news about changes to the divorce law. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill was laid before Parliament (again) on Tuesday 7 January. Fingers crossed this will third time lucky.
The government announced the divorce reform changes in April 2018. The bill was first put to parliament in June 2019 and made quick progress, but stalled when parliament was prorogued. It was reintroduced in October 2019 but again it stalled when parliament was dissolved for the general election. It is positive news the bill has returned so quickly, and hopefully this time it will have a smooth passage before it is made law.
The current divorce procedure is set out in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – it’s 47 years old – the same age as me! In the same way that I’m now a bit rusty and need improving, so does the divorce process.
Currently, one person has to start the process saying the marriage has irretrievably broken down, and they must cite one of five facts. Three of those facts need you to have lived apart for more than 2 years. Because most people don’t want to wait, that leaves adultery or unreasonable behaviour. For a couple to have to wrestle with this at a time when they are not getting on, makes a bad situation worse.
The proposed new law removes the need to refer to these facts (adultery, unreasonable behaviour etc). Either one or both spouses can apply to court, and provide a “statement of irretrievable breakdown”. No further evidence will be required. There will be a cooling off period of (in total) 26 weeks – 6 months – but that’s it. There’s no mechanism to contest the divorce. A small minority of people view this as wrong, and want to retain the ability to allocate blame (e.g. adultery) but it seems to be largely accepted that for the benefit of the majority it makes sense to simplify the process. The era of blaming people for behaviour in a relationship is coming to an end.
This seems like an overdue change to me. We see the damage the current law changes every day. Also, I spend a large part of my life trying to explain to people why there’s a list of example of unreasonable behaviour, and why it doesn’t really matter. At long last the law is catching up with the reality of daily life (and daily practice as a family lawyer)