Divorce applications ‘highest for decade’ as no-fault law change brought in

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Divorce applications have reached their highest level for a decade as no-fault legislation was introduced in England and Wales, figures show.

There were 33,566 divorce applications in April to June – with the majority under the new legislation and from sole applicants, according to data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

On April 6, new legislation came into effect enabling couples to go through proceedings without apportioning blame, with a statement of irretrievable breakdown, made either individually or together, seen as “conclusive evidence”.

The change also introduced a new minimum period of 20 weeks, for “meaningful” reflection, between starting proceedings and applying for a conditional order.

Officials expected the reforms to lead to a temporary spike and expect volumes to return to previous levels following the initial peak.

They show that the number of divorce applications between April and June rose to the highest level since the first quarter of 2012 – more than a decade ago – and is up 22% from the same period in 2021.

Of the applications between April and June, the vast majority (33,234) were made under the new law.

More than three-quarters (78%) of these applications were by sole applicants.

Under the old divorce law, there were 19,758 decree absolutes (final orders) granted in April to June, down 35% from the same quarter in 2021.

For those divorcing under the old law, there was a rise in the average time of proceedings.

And the average period from date of petition to decree absolute was 56 weeks, up seven weeks from the equivalent quarter in 2021.

The MoJ said the increased time frames have been impacted by resourcing issues which have led to backlogs.

It said it will not be commenting on the timeliness of new divorce cases until there have been substantial numbers of conditional and final orders, due to the new mandatory waiting periods.

Some 98% of divorce applications were made digitally, up from 72% in the same period in 2021.

The Marriage Foundation called the rise “a short-term blip that almost certainly reflects a backlog of anticipation of these new laws”.

Research director Harry Benson said: “If you knew that you had to wait two years for a no-fault divorce and a new law was coming that could let you do it in six months, you’d wait.

“That’s what couples have done.”

Simon Blain, a partner at Forsters, said: “Time will tell whether the increase is sustained, which would suggest that (as some feared) a simplified, online, divorce procedure will lead to higher levels of divorce.

“Much more likely is that a combination of a return to normal following the pandemic and well-publicised and popular new legislation meant that people waited for the new legislation before commencing divorce proceedings, leading to a spike as this pent-up demand was released after 6 April.

“If that premise is correct, one would expect to see levels of new divorce applications returning to normal over the next two to three quarters.”

He added: “With the precarious situation in the economy right now and the bottleneck in the first quarter of the year, I think we need to wait longer before concluding there is a steep upward trend in divorce.”

Katie O’Callaghan, partner at Boodle Hatfield, said she might have expected to see a greater proportion of joint applications, with the new law enabling couples to feel they could approach divorce “on an equal footing”.

She said: “However, it isn’t uncommon for individuals to seek catharsis by being the one in the driving seat – particularly where they are no longer able to place blame in their divorce application.

“Making an application on a sole basis may help to achieve a sense of closure, especially if they feel that they were the ‘wronged party’.”

Some legal experts suggested couples may put the brakes on their divorces as the cost-of-living crisis may make this unaffordable, while others said financial stress, as a “critical trigger point”, could result in the upward trend continuing.

Osbornes Law family law partner Joanne Wescott said: “While financial tensions are a major source of conflict in relationships, splitting into two households will inevitably be more expensive for all concerned, with increased mortgage and rental costs and higher bills.

“Many fear they have too much to lose and will decide against getting divorced, at least for now.”

An MoJ spokeswoman said: “We ended the divorce blame game to spare children the anguish of seeing their parents mudslinging in court and expected a temporary spike in the number of applications for divorce as people waited to file under the new process.

“International evidence shows that long-term divorce rates are not increased by removing ‘fault’ from the divorce process.”

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