Overhaul of divorce laws to end ‘blame game’

Credit: PA

Fifty-year-old divorce laws will be overhauled under Government plans designed to end a “blame game” faced by couples seeking to end their marriage.

Justice Secretary David Gauke confirmed new legislation would be introduced after a consultation revealed support for reforms of the existing fault-based system.

Currently in England and Wales, unless someone can prove there was adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, the only way to obtain a divorce without their spouse’s agreement is to live apart for five years.

The proposed new arrangements will keep “irretrievable breakdown” of a marriage as the sole grounds for divorce.

But, rather than having to provide evidence relating to behaviour or separation, divorcing spouses will be required to make a statement that the marriage has broken down.

The ability of a husband or wife to contest a divorce – used in under 2% of cases – will be scrapped under the shake-up.

The existing two-stage process, in which a decree nisi is followed by a decree absolute, will be retained under the proposed new system.

It will introduce a six-month minimum period that must elapse between the lodging of a petition to the divorce being made final.

The Government is also planning to make it possible for couples to make joint divorce applications, alongside the current option for one party to initiate the process.

Justice Secretary David Gauke said now is the ‘right time to end this unnecessary blame game for good’ Credit: PA

Mr Gauke said: “While we will always uphold the institution of marriage, it cannot be right that our outdated law creates or increases conflict between divorcing couples.

“So I have listened to calls for reform and firmly believe now is the right time to end this unnecessary blame game for good.”

Aidan Jones, chief executive of charity Relate, welcomed the “much-needed” changes.

He said: “The outdated fault-based divorce system led parting couples to apportion blame, often resulting in increased animosity and making it harder for ex-partners to develop positive relationships as co-parents.

“While divorce isn’t a decision that people tend to take lightly, we do support the extension of the minimum timeframe which will allow more time to reflect, give things another go if appropriate, and access support such as relationship counselling or mediation.”

Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said the current system “exacerbates tensions” between couples.

She added: “The government’s decision to introduce a ‘no-fault’ divorce will help to cut some of the conflict from what can be a highly stressful experience.

“For separating parents, it can be much more difficult to focus on the needs of their children when they have to prove a fault-based fact against their former partner. Introducing a ‘no-fault’ divorce will change the way couples obtain a divorce – for the better.”

Details of the proposals were first unveiled last year, and ministers have decided to press ahead following a 12-week consultation.

Calls for reform intensified after a woman lost a legal battle to divorce her husband of 40 years.

Tini Owens argued she was unhappy in her marriage, which she claimed had broken down irretrievably.

But Mrs Owens’s husband Hugh Owens did not agree to divorce, and the Supreme Court ruled against her, meaning she must remain married until 2020.

Last year, 118,000 people petitioned for divorce in England and Wales.

Parallel changes will be made to the law governing the dissolution of a civil partnership.