Revolutionary changes are occurring in UK divorce law, with the current provisions under review after controversial court cases and public challenges. Evidently, this will be an ongoing debate, with evolving societal attitudes and ideas having a proven impact on our legal framework. Therefore, it is crucial to understand what rules are in place at the moment, when they have been contested, and what suggestions have been made for their amendment.
The Matrimonial Clauses Act 1971 sets out the criteria that must be met before a single marital party (the ‘petitioner’) can petition for a divorce against their partner (the ‘respondent’). Section 1 of the Act mandates that a marriage must have broken down ‘irretrievably’ before petitions can be considered by the court. Such an irrevocable state can only be met if:
Following the above, a court will inquire into the validity of the facts presented by both parties, and unless the judges believe a marriage has not broken down, it will grant a divorce. This is granted as a ‘decree nisi’ (the divorce will take place unless there is a good reason it should not) until after a six month period, then the divorce becomes final.
In 2018, the UK Supreme Court made a landmark ruling, taking the first step in the direction of change. This case was Owens v Owens.
Abundant media coverage, pubic comment and political debate followed the Owens case decision, mounting to the proposal of a Bill (a law that has not yet passed through Parliament) to remedy the issues in divorce law. The bill was sponsored by then Conservative Lord Chancellor David Gauke in July 2019, and is currently due to go through the Report Stage of the parliamentary process – where scrutiny committees report on their findings having analysed the proposal.
The Bill, entitled the ‘Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill’ contains the following adjustments to UK divorce law:
Whilst there is widespread support for the Bill, some argue that changing the law could damage the respect and importance associated with a marital bond. Furthermore, there are claims that divorce rates would increase. However, it is evident that such rates are already relatively high, and the benefit of removing the need to prove fault will enable discontented spouses to find a release. Preventing the respondent from contesting a petition also suggests that divorces will be more accessible for those who are suffering domestic abuse.
The date for the Bill’s next stage in the parliamentary legislative process is still to be confirmed, thus TSL will be keeping track of the unprecedented divorce law transformation.
Article by Eliza Liddicott