The new no-fault divorce law, aimed at reducing the “blame game”, comes into force today. The landmark reform is the biggest change in divorce law in over fifty years and puts an end to the need for separating couples to apportion blame.
After over thirty years of campaigning for change by family lawyers, the need for couples to separate without having to apportion blame on legal documents has finally arrived. Additionally, separating couples no longer have to wait for at least two years before they can divorce.
The new law under The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act (2020), applies to England and Wales, although there is already a form of no-fault divorce in Scotland. Those wishing to divorce in Northern Ireland, however, will continue to follow the former rules that include blame.
What was the old divorce law?
Previously, in England and Wales, anyone who wanted to split had to make an accusation in their divorce petition. Partners had to be accused of either adultery, desertion, or unreasonable behaviour.
Without making such an accusation, couples would have to spend at least two years apart, by agreement, or five years apart, if one of the partners objected to the separation.
Family lawyers have long argued that the system was a huge cause for concern, making it harder for couples to come to agreement over financial settlements, the apportionment of assets, and the arrangements for the future of any children.
Furthermore, legal experts in family law have long pointed out that people trapped in loveless and often abusive relationships felt powerless; the dissenting partner would be in control over the one that wished to leave the marriage,
What is the new no-fault divorce law?
Under the revised no-fault divorce law, either partner in a marriage or civil partnership, or both partners acting together, can file for divorce without the need to give a reason or apportion blame.
In most cases now, all that is required for the courts is a statement that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. This removes the need for “finger pointing” and acrimony at a time when, for instance, children are best protected from the “mudslinging” that often occurs during a breakdown in marriage.
Additionally, the timescales involved in a no-fault divorce are more realistic, with a new 20-week period between the start of divorce proceedings and the application for a conditional order. Then there is a further six-week period before divorce is finally granted.
Judges will still be involved in dispute resolution where children, and child maintenance, or the division of wealth and assets is required.
What has been the reaction to new no-fault divorce laws?
Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, said of the new laws:
The breakdown of a marriage can be agonising for all involved, especially children. We want to reduce the acrimony couples endure and end the anguish that children suffer.
Juliet Harvey, the National Chair of Resolution, a body representing family lawyers, added:
This historic change will mean the end of the blame game for divorcing couples, removing the outdated and unnecessary need for them to find fault with their ex on the divorce petition.
With over 100,000 couples divorcing in England and Wales in 2020, it is hoped that the new law will bring positive changes to the act of separation, becoming more “humane” as one member of The Law Society stated, bringing some dignity to the process and allowing a greater degree of autonomy.
Other countries have had no-fault divorce laws in place for many years including Sweden (since 1973), Australia (1975) and Spain (2005).
Back in England, the 2017 Owens v Owens case was pivotal in finally moving divorce law into the 21st century. The wife petitioned for divorce, citing 27 examples of her husband’s “unreasonable behaviour”, the husband objected. The Judge agreed that the points raised were not technically “unreasonable behaviour” and the decision was appealed, refer to and again lost, in the Supreme Court in 2018.
Now, couples can separate without having to blame anyone for the breakdown in marriage.