After a sustained campaign to change the existing divorce laws and bring them more into line with the realities of modern marriage, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 finally received Royal Assent in June 2020 (now expected to be implemented spring 2022). The Act is changing how couples are able to divorce.
Currently, if a couple want to divorce, there is a requirement to find fault to prove that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. Unreasonable behaviour or adultery are the most commonly cited reasons (out of choice of five) – and neither lend themselves to an amicable agreement.
No requirement to apportion blame
Once the Act comes into force, couples will have to provide a statement as evidence that the marriage is over, rather than relying on one of five facts to prove ‘irretrievable breakdown’. The two-stage process, namely the decree nisi and the decree absolute, will remain; couples can apply jointly, as well as individually, to start divorce proceedings; a divorce will no longer be able to be contested; and the whole process will take a minimum of 26 weeks to complete so that both parties have sufficient time to reflect fully on their course of action.
This approach, the government believes, will allow couples to reach agreement in an orderly fashion, reducing the acrimony and hostility often engendered by the current system and which is particularly harmful where children are involved.
Anachronistic divorce laws
It was the Tini Owens case that helped to persuade Parliament to reform what many legal professionals felt was becoming increasingly absurd – the requirement to apportion blame in a situation where a marriage had just run out of steam. Even members of the Supreme Court had called on Parliament to change the law after they were unable to grant Tini Owens a divorce because her allegations of ‘unreasonable behaviour’ were insufficiently legally robust to prove irretrievable breakdown, despite her evident misery. This unhappy case just highlighted how the need to find fault led, in many cases, to unnecessarily messy and damaging divorces.
Changes are welcome
It was a great relief to many when the Act was passed: too often have we seen divorce proceedings deteriorate from a desire on both sides to end a marriage amicably to a hostile stand-off caused by the requirement to find ‘fault’ to expedite the divorce. We know from experience what a deleterious effect this has on children who are often caught in the cross-fire. Accusations that making divorce easier will lead to ‘throw away’ vows are groundless: only a tiny number of people enter marriage on a whim – most take their promises seriously. People are living longer, expectations change over time, and some married couples find that their lives diverge to the point where remaining married is no longer an option. Ending a marriage is hard – but no one should be penalised for doing so.