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No fault divorce on the horizon

No fault divorce will become a reality in Britain next year, the government has announced.

This major change will be delivered by the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, which completed its passage through Parliament earlier this month. It is now awaiting the final stage in the creation of new law, royal assent, when it will become an official Act of Parliament.

But whenever royal assent is granted, the Act will not come into force until next year according to Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland. Speaking recently in the House of Commons, he explained that time would be needed for “careful implementation” of the new divorce system.

“At this early stage, we are working towards an indicative timetable of implementation in autumn 2021.”

At that yet-to-be-fixed point, anyone applying for a divorce – the ‘petitioner’ – will no longer need to cite a reason for doing so. Citing one of five facts has been a requirement of divorce petitions for decades. The five facts are:

  • Adultery.
  • That “the respondent has behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with the respondent” – typically shortened to ‘unreasonable behaviour’ and the most commonly cited fact.
  • Desertion for a period of at least two years.
  • Having lived apart for a period of at least two years, as long as the other party agrees to the divorce.
  • Having lived apart for a period of at least five years, whether or not the other party agrees to the divorce.

All but one of those “facts” (two years separation) require attributing blame to the other spouse, a fact which has been a topic of debate and a source of controversy for a number of years. Campaigners such as family law organisation Resolution insisted that attributing blame for the breakdown of a marriage encourages conflict in an already difficult situation in which children are often on the front line. Resolution works to promote an approach to family disputes which minimise confrontation and the impression that one partner has “won” and the other “lost”, so they naturally gravitated towards the issue of fault-based divorce and campaigned for change. What they sought instead was a ‘no fault’ system in which, as the name suggests, it would no longer be necessary to blame one spouse or the other for the breakdown of the marriage. All you would need to do is declare that the marriage has broken down and could not be salvaged.

The more conservatively minded worried that no fault divorce would encourage people to take marriage less seriously. It has been available in other jurisdictions for some time – including the entirety of the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and Spain. No fault divorce was introduced on a state-by-state basis in the United States, beginning in California as long ago as 1970.  Tellingly perhaps, Germany used to operate a fault based system based on das Schuldprinzip (‘the principle of guilt’) but this was abandoned in 1976.

The UK is finally ready to join the club. When the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill comes into force anyone applying for divorce will simply no need to declare that the marriage has irretrievably broken down – and that declaration can even be made jointly.

In addition to the significant shift towards no fault divorce, some of the legal terminology used in divorce will changed by the Act. Petitions for a divorce will now be known simply as ‘applications’ and the final two stages in the process will be given the more straightforward names ‘conditional order’ and ‘final order’, with the unnecessary Franco-Latinisms of ‘decree nisi’ and ‘decree absolute’ consigned to history.

In addition, the somewhat antiquated right to ‘defend’ or contest a divorce will also be removed. This right has always been something of an absurdity. How, after all, can you force someone to remain married to a person they no longer love? In fact, it was a rare contested divorce dispute – Owens v Owens, which went all the way to the Supreme Court – that led the government to decide that the time was finally right modernisation and reform.

Resolution naturally welcomed the introduction of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill, with chair Margaret Heathcote saying it would enable lawyers to better “support couples to resolve matters as constructively and amicably as possible, minimising the impact on any children they may have”.

Former Resolution chair Nigel Shepherd dubbed it the “…the biggest reform of divorce laws in England and Wales in over 50 years, demonstrating just how outdated and old-fashioned fault-based divorce is.”

The Law Commission is an independent organisation established by the government to regularly review existing legislation and make recommendations for improvement. As long ago as 1990 the commissioners published a report strongly critical of the fault-based system, saying it encouraged conflict and hostility. Recommendations made in this report were incorporated into the Family Law Act 1996, but the section which would have introduced no fault no divorce was never introduced amidst claims that it would be “unworkable”.

And yet here we are, 24 years later. There is a lot happening in the world right now, and autumn 2021 certainly seems a long way off still. But I will be watching the months tick by and preparing carefully for this major change to the biggest sector of family law – and I will be doing so alongside other family lawyers up and down the land.

Photo by Alan Levine via Flickr (Public Domain)