Divorce law: Plans to overhaul ‘archaic’ laws revealed

A smashed wedding cake Image copyright Getty Images

More details have emerged about government plans to overhaul “archaic” divorce laws in England and Wales.

Couples wishing to divorce could soon benefit from a less confrontational process, under proposals confirmed by the Justice Secretary David Gauke.

The government has launched a consultation proposing removing the need to allege “fault”, and the right of spouses to contest a divorce.

Mr Gauke said the current divorce laws were “out of touch with modern life”.

Under the current law, unless people can prove their marriage has broken down due to adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, the only way to obtain a divorce without a spouse’s consent is to live apart for five years.

If the separation is mutual, the couple have to prove they have been separated for a minimum of two years before they can divorce.

Mr Guake said: “We think that the blame game that currently exists helps nobody. It creates unnecessary antagonism and anxiety at an already trying time for couples.”

The proposed changes, which were leaked earlier this month, include making “the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage” the sole grounds for a divorce.

It is also recommending removing the need to show evidence of a spouse’s conduct, or a period of living apart.

The 12-week consultation also proposes a new notification process where one, or possibly both parties, can simply notify the court of their intention to divorce, removing the opportunity for the other spouse to contest the divorce application.

The changes would apply to heterosexual and gay marriages, and civil partnerships.

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Image caption Tini Owens was refused a divorce by the family court and Court of Appeal

Pressure for reform intensified after a woman’s appeal for divorce was rejected by the Supreme Court in July due to her husband’s refusal to split.

Tini Owens, 68, wanted to divorce on the grounds she was unhappy but her husband of 40 years refused the split, leading the court to rule against her “with reluctance”.

That meant she must remain married until 2020 – as currently the only way to obtain a divorce without a spouse’s agreement is to live apart for five years.

Mr Gauke said the case had “generated broader questions about what the law requires of people going through divorce and what it achieves in practice”.

There had been a “growing coalition recognising that the animosity that is put into this system is one that is not doing us any good,” he said.

Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon had previously urged the government to simply change the law rather than undertaking a consultation.

Hannah Cornish, head of family law at Slater and Gordon, said there was a “desperate need” for reform.

She added: “Having to place blame can really inflame matters at what can already be a stressful and difficult time for a family.”

Ministers also want views on the minimum time between the interim and final divorce decree in order to allow couples time to reflect and reach agreement on arrangements for the future if divorce is inevitable.


Grounds for divorce in England and Wales:

When you apply for a divorce you must prove your marriage has broken down and give one of the following five reasons:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable behaviour
  • Desertion
  • You have lived apart for more than two years and both agree to the divorce
  • You have lived apart for at least five years, even if your husband or wife disagrees

Source: Gov.UK

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