UK Divorce Law: Time for an Overhaul
In the UK, it is estimated that 42% of UK marriages end in a divorce. This is the equivalent of over 100,000 couples receiving a divorce per year. However, seeking a divorce in this country can be an acrimonious and antagonistic process, during an already difficult time for couples. In September 2018, this was acknowledged by the Justice Secretary, David Gauke, who stated that “unnecessary antagonism” is created by the UK’s ‘fault-based’ divorce system. Contemporary controversies over UK divorce law make plans for its overhaul very timely and necessary.
So, why is the Matrimonial Clauses Act (1973) a cause of acrimony for couples seeking a divorce?
Couples are treated as a petitioner (requesting the divorce) and a respondent (acknowledging the request). The petitioner has to give a reason for ending marriage. There are five grounds for doing so: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, separation (two years by consent) or separation (five years without consent).
Unreasonable behaviour and adultery is the reason given in 60% of divorce cases. However, making allegations of unreasonable behaviour or adultery can be wounding, and upsetting for the couple’s children, amidst an already lengthy, costly, and upsetting process.
Campaigners for change argued that a “landmark moment” for divorce law was reached last July (2018). A woman’s appeal for divorce was rejected by the Supreme Court due to her husband’s refusal to split. Tini Owens (aged 68 years) wanted to divorce her husband of 40 years, on the grounds of being unhappy. Her husband, Hugh, refused the split and the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the repeal. This means Tini must remain married until 2020, in order to fulfil the following ground for divorce: separation for five years without consent.
The fact that there has been a legal precedent for ‘no-fault’ divorces is fuelling campaigns for the overhaul. A precedent for the ‘no-fault’ basis for divorce was introduced by the Family Law Act (1996). However, the statute was never implemented and had disappeared from the statute book by 2014.
Divorce laws in England and Wales are set to be overhauled under new government plans announced last September (2018), constituting the biggest shakeup to the system in over 50 years. The proposed changes will allow couples to split up more quickly and remove the requirement of proving ‘fault’ in the divorce process. This is part of a much-needed, overdue reform. Christina Blackwas, President of the Law Society, recently argued that UK divorce law should be brought “into the 21st century.” This highlights the need for divorce law to change over time, affecting the people and places governed by English jurisdiction.
By Hannah Mendall
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