Weekly Family Law Update June 21, 2022

Divorce applications surge after introduction of no-fault divorce

Recently published data from HM Courts and Tribunals Service (‘HMCTS’) has shown a marked increase in the number of divorce applications since the new no-fault divorce system was introduced on the 6th of April.

The data shows that in April 12,978 new divorce applications were issued, of which 2,771 were made jointly by both parties (joint divorce applications were only made possible by the new law), and 10,207 were made by a single party.

By comparison, HMCTS data shows that 8,729 divorce petitions were issued in April 2021. The new figures therefore represent about half again the number of divorce applications compared to the year before.

Should we be worried?

Opponents of no-fault divorce have long warned that by making divorce easier it would lead to higher divorce rates. So do these figures show that their fears were well-grounded?

Not necessarily.

Obviously, we will have to wait for more figures, to see if the increase is a long-term trend. However, supporters of no-fault divorce say that what we are seeing is just an expected temporary ‘blip’, caused by people waiting for the new law to come into effect before issuing divorce proceedings.

Under the old law anyone who had not been separated from their spouse for at least two years could only proceed with a divorce by showing that their marriage had broken down irretrievably, because their spouse had either committed adultery or behaved unreasonably.

Under the new law it is not necessary to prove that the marriage has broken irretrievably – a simple statement to that effect is accepted by the court as proof of irretrievable breakdown.

It is believed that many people did not wish to have to blame their spouse for the breakdown of the marriage, and so were waiting for the new law to come into effect, hence the surge in new divorce applications since the 6th of April.

In other words, it is argued that the surge in divorce applications is an indication that many people favour the new law, which is less likely to cause animosity between the parties.

It may also be simply the case that some people feared that their spouse might defend the divorce, and were therefore waiting for the new system, under which a defended divorce is no longer possible.

As stated, we will have to wait and see if the surge is just a temporary blip, and the figures return to normal levels in the coming months.

Not everyone favours the new law?

It may be that the figures are indeed an indication that many people do favour the new blameless divorce system, in which it is even possible to apply jointly for a divorce.

However, it should be said that the same HMCTS data also indicated a possible different scenario.

The data showed that in March, the month before the new system came into effect, there were 12,903 divorce applications, almost as many as in April.

This figure suggests that many people may have been hurrying to get their divorce issued before the no-fault system came in.

Why could this be? Could it really be the case that people actually wanted to blame their spouse for the breakdown of the marriage?

That could possibly be the case. Many people do believe that the breakdown of their marriage was indeed the fault of their spouse, and want to prove that to the world (or at least to the court).

But there could be another reason for the March spike.

Under the old system it was possible to get a divorce quite quickly. If there were no complications, and if everyone (including the court) dealt with it as quickly as they could, it was possible, at least in theory, to get the divorce in as little as three months.

Under the new system there has to be a twenty-week ‘period for reflection’ between the divorce application and the date upon which the applicant(s) can apply for the conditional divorce order. There must then be a six-week gap between the conditional order and the final divorce order. Accordingly, under the new system a divorce will take a minimum of twenty-six weeks, or six months.

Maybe those who rushed to get their divorce issued in March did so in the hope of having it finalised more quickly.

Whatever the reason, it could be that not everyone favours the new law.