Understanding Britain’s new ‘no-fault’ divorce law

Irina Baranova

The ‘no-fault’ divorce law means a spouse no longer needs to prove the other guilty of adultery, ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or desertion

The new legislation has been described as the biggest reform for divorce laws in 50 years in England and Wales. Pixabay

Divorces can get ugly. Not so much in Britain and Wales anymore, as the government introduced the “no-fault” divorce law. The new legislation has been described as the biggest reform for divorce laws in 50 years. But what exactly is it?

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act, 2020, which came into effect on 6 April, does away with any “blame game” and instead helps separating spouses to focus on “key practical decisions involving children or their finances”, according to a statement by the United Kingdom government.

This means that couples will not have to either separate for at least two years – increasing to five if one party does not consent – or allocate blame to legally end their marriage. One spouse no longer needs to prove the other guilty of adultery, “unreasonable behaviour” or desertion.

“A spouse, or a couple jointly, can now apply for a divorce by stating their marriage has broken down irretrievably. It removes unnecessary finger-pointing and acrimony at a time where emotions are already running high, and spares children from witnessing their parents mudslinging,” the government statement read.

Dominic Raab, Britain’s deputy prime minister, said, “The breakdown of a marriage can be agonising for all involved, especially children. We want to reduce the acrimony couples endure and end the anguish that children suffer.”
“That’s why we are allowing couples to apply for divorce without having to prove fault, ending the blame game, where a marriage has broken down irretrievably, and enabling couples to move on with their lives without the bitter wrangling of an adversarial divorce process,” she added.

The case that led to change

The bill, which was passed in June 2020 and became a law on Wednesday, amended the earlier legislation.

It all started with the case of Tini Owens from Worcestershire who wanted to divorce her husband after 40 years because she was unhappy.

She lost a Supreme Court fight in 2018, having failed to persuade the judges that her marriage should end. Her husband Hugh had contested her claims of unreasonable behaviour, and the judges ruled that being trapped in an unhappy marriage was not in itself grounds for divorce.

Denying her appeal, the Supreme Court had said that she must remain married to Hugh until 2020 – five years after she moved out of their marital home in 2015.

Owens’ case glavanised a campaign for change which resulted in the “no-fault” divorce law.

Commenting on the introduction of the new bill, Owens, who is in her early 70s, said, “No one should have to remain in a loveless marriage or endure a long, drawn-out and expensive court battle to end it.”

“This change in the law guards against that happening and I welcome it,” she added, according to a report in The Independent.

Not a quickie divorce

The change brings England and Wales into line with Scotland, which has its own legal system, and with other countries including the United States, Australia and Germany, reports AFP.

However, the law is not like America’s “quickie divorces” – an expediated divorce process allowed in some parts of the country.

As per the “no-fault” divorce law, there is a minimum wait of 20 weeks between a spouse first initiating proceedings and then applying for a legal order.

But it does overhaul the current system, in place for decades, under which some spouses would resort to private detectives to find evidence of fault, or the couple would agree simply to concoct the evidence, reports AFP.

Will there be more divorces?

Lawyers are expecting a surge in applications from couples now.

“The experience of other countries where they’ve moved to a no-fault system is that there is a spike when the new law comes in – in Scotland, for example, when they changed the law in 2006,” Jo Edwards, the head of family law at Forsters, a leading London-based law firm, told Guardian.

There is fear that a rise in cases will put added pressure on courts which have “been under greater strain because of because of Covid and budget cuts”, according to Ed Floyd, a specialist family lawyer and partner at Farrer & Co, an independent law company in London.

More marriages

Not only divorces even marriages are expected to go up.

A survey commissioned by the law firm Slater and Gordon pointed to an unintended consequence – 32 per cent of cohabiting respondents said they were more likely to get married now that the divorce process was simpler, reports AFP.

With inputs from agencies

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