New no-fault divorce law to end ‘blame game’

This week, Justice Secretary David Gauke pledged new legislation will be introduced where divorcing couples will no longer have to blame one another for their marital breakdown.

This reform follows on from the landmark Tini Owens case in which the Supreme Court ruled Ms Owens failed to demonstrate her relationship had broken down because of her husband’s unreasonable behaviour and could not divorce Mr Owens until five years had passed.

Changes to the outdated divorce laws would establish a minimum six-month timeframe for couples to ‘reflect’ on their decision and remove the ability to contest a divorce.

What are the current grounds for divorce?

Under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, spouses are forced to prove their partner is at fault through adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour. If both parties agree to the divorce, they must be separated for two years. Where there is no fault or consent to the divorce, applicants are required to wait until they have been living apart for five years.

Ministers are acting to update the 50-year-old divorce laws after a public consultation found the current system works against any prospect of reconciliation, in addition to having a damaging effect on children by undermining the parent’s relationship.

Critics also believe that the fault-based system forces parties to accuse each other of bad behaviour if they do not want to wait years before obtaining a divorce.

The Justice Secretary stated:

“Hostility and conflict between parents leave their mark on children and can damage their life chances.

“While we will always uphold the institution of marriage, it cannot be right that our outdated law creates or increases conflict between divorcing couples.”

The Ministry of Justice has said the new no-fault divorce laws will be introduced ‘as soon as parliamentary time allows’.

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Divorces granted to wives has nearly halved since 1993

The Marriage Foundation recently commissioned new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) to discover the number of divorces in England and Wales, the duration of the marriages, and whether the divorce was granted to the husband or wife.

In 2017, there were 55,689 fewer divorces granted to wives compared with the peak year of 1993; a 47 per cent drop from 118,401 to 62,712. According to the recent report from The Marriage Foundation, there was only a 15 per cent fall in divorces granted to husbands (from 46,271 to 38,957) during the same period.

Divorces granted by previous marital status

The ONS data was broken down into three main categories to determine the difference in divorce figures when marital status before marriage was considered:

  1. Single
  2. Divorced
  3. Widowed

Previously Single Marital Status

During 2017, the research revealed 23,329 first-time husbands who filed for divorce were divorcing a woman who had also never been married before. This was a drop of more than 6,000 from 2012 when 29,721 divorces were granted to the husband. Although a higher figure, similar findings were found for previously single women. 37,217 wives were granted a divorce where both parties were in their first marriage in 2017; a fall of over 16,000 in just five years (53,930 were filed in 2012).

Previously Divorced Marital Status

3,417 men filed for divorce from a woman who had been married before; a small drop on the 3,767 recorded in 2012. Those previously single women who applied for divorce from a husband who had been married more than once fell 1,612 compared with 2012’s figures (from 7,366 to 5,754).

Previously Widowed Marital Status

The number of men granted a divorce where the woman had been previously widowed fell from 114 to 90 in five years. This compares with 96 that were granted to a first-time wife from their previously widowed husbands in 2017, 30 petitions less than half a decade ago.

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No evidence that children of single-parent households are negatively impacted, new study finds

A study conducted by Gingerbread – a charity supporting single-parent families – and the University of Sheffield, has revealed that the wellbeing of children living with a single parent is the same, if not higher, than those in a two-parent family household.

Key findings from the report

The study – named Family Portrait: Single parent families and transitions over time – was conducted over six years with more than 27,800 households with children examined. Released at the end of last year, the report measures the children’s wellbeing by looking at three key factors: ‘life satisfaction’, ‘feelings about their family’ and ‘the quality of relationships with peers’. On all accounts, the report concluded that there was no evidence that children’s wellbeing was negatively affected if they were living or have lived in a single-parent household compared with those living in two-parent families.

Children’s Wellbeing

The children in the study were asked to self-report on their wellbeing and rate their feelings on their family and peer relationships on a scale up to five.

For ‘life satisfaction’, children who had always lived with a single parent ranked higher than those who were in two-parent households. Children in single-parent families believed their life satisfaction sat at 2.22 out of 5. This was closely followed by those who had lived with a single parent at some point (2.19 out of 5) and then those living in two-parent households at 2.02 out of 5.

A similar pattern was revealed when asked how they feel about their family: those who had always lived with a single parent or had previously lived with a single parent were more positive – averaging at 1.71 – compared with those who had never lived with a single parent (1.54).

The final self-report saw children who lived in single-parent households have less problematic relationships among their peers than those in two-parent families. Children from two-parent households ranked peer problems at 4.62, followed by those who had always lived in a single parent family at 4.02 and then children who had previously lived with a single parent at 3.92.

Despite other data suggesting that 1 in 4 households are headed by single parents, the report noted around a third (32%) of families will have been a single parent family for at least some point over the six years examined. This concludes that single parenthood is much more common than is typically suggested.

1 in 7 single parents get married or cohabit

14% of single parents were reported to transition out of single parenthood by either getting married or cohabiting with a partner – and of these parents, almost three quarters re-partnered with the child’s biological parent.

The study looked at different family types over the course of six years and examined any changes in the family structure:

  • 84% of single parents due to bereavement remained single, while 16% re-partnered.
  • 94% of those married stayed the same, while 3% cohabited and 3% separated or divorced
  • 77% of those cohabiting remained in their living situation, while 11% married and 12% separated.

Consistent with official statistics, the study proved that cohabiting parents were the most likely family group to experience a change in their living situation. However, the report discovered that cohabiting was as important a route to marriage as single parenthood.

Professor Nathan Hughes from the University of Sheffield commented on the data:

“These findings have clear implications for how single-parent families should be understood, valued and supported. Stereotyping single parenthood as a problem is inaccurate and immoral.”

Chief Executive at Gingerbread, Rosie Ferguson, concluded:

“Our report with the University of Sheffield debunks myths about single-parent households and significantly, it shows that children are not negatively impacted if raised by a lone parent. What is important to a child’s wellbeing is the presence of positive relationships.”

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77 divorce applications filed on New Year’s Day

Between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, 455 online divorce applications were lodged in England and Wales. According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), 26 people submitted applications on Christmas Eve, 13 on Christmas Day, 23 people filed on Boxing Day and 77 on New Year’s Day.

Amicable, a divorce support service, revealed that online searches for ‘divorce’ are 25% higher in January compared with any other time of the year. Relationship support charity, Relate, also report a 13% rise in calls and 58% spike in website users in the first month of every year. Experts believe that disputes arising from trying to create the perfect Christmas in addition to financial troubles over the festive break are the main reasons why married couples decide to split at this time of the year.

Simone Bose, a Relate counsellor, explained:

“No one’s saying that Christmas itself leads to divorce and separation, but if you’re already experiencing issues then added ‘festive pressures’ such as financial woes and family rows can push things from bad to breaking point.”

Digital Divorces

From April 2018, couples have had the opportunity to complete the divorce application process using the internet. Since the platform was opened, more than 23,000 online divorce applications have been made.

The introduction of the online divorce petition service is part of a £1 billion plan to modernise the current justice system. The MoJ reported that the newly digitised system for applying for divorce has cut application form errors from 40% to less than 1%. On average, the time taken to complete a divorce application has also reduced by more than half an hour.

Grounds for divorce

In order to apply for a divorce in England and Wales, you must have been married for at least a year and able to prove your marriage has broken down due to one of the following:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable behaviour
  • Desertion
  • You have lived apart for more than two years and both parties agree to the divorce
  • If your spouse does not agree to the separation, you must have lived apart from your partner for at least five years

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How the UK-EU divorce could impact divorcees

The Law Society has issued guidance for its members on the effect of a no-deal Brexit on family law. The future is unclear, and the UK faces a loss of protection for some vulnerable parties, including the victims of domestic violence.

The president of the Society, Christina Blacklaws, told the Law Gazette last month that “there is little doubt that resolving disputes will become much more complex and much more costly.”

On the subject of divorce, the Law Society predicts that after a no-deal Brexit, unless the states involved in a multi-national case are members of the Hague Convention on divorce, there could be conflicts of jurisdiction and parallel proceedings, which would be more expensive for the parties involved.

Currently, if you are the victim of domestic violence or harassment, and a national court has issued a civil law protection order in your favour, this will be recognised and enforced anywhere in the EU. The UK plans to repeal the Regulation which controls this, and it is unclear what the government intends to do to ensure UK judgments are respected in other EU states post-Brexit.

It is possible that the UK could negotiate deals with individual EU states on family law matters, but this will require the authorisation of the European Commission. The UK has also disclosed that it intends to negotiate a treaty with the EU on issues relating to civil justice and cooperation in family law, which the Law Society has stated it would encourage.

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World Cup success brought spike in domestic violence

Evidence from the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV) suggests that reports of domestic violence increased sharply during the 2018 World Cup tournament, despite England’s success. The charity received 2,619 reports of domestic violence between the 1st and 10th July this year – an increase of 500 when compared with a similar 10-day period before the competition began.

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Divorce rate at its lowest in over 40 years

The divorce rate among opposite-sex couples in England and Wales is at its lowest since 1973, according to new research from the ONS. Only 8.4 per 1,000 married couples got a divorce in 2017, a decrease of 5.6% compared with 2016.

The ONS publication, which was released yesterday, looks at a number of factors which can influence the divorce rate, such as:

  • age of divorce
  • duration of marriage
  • opposite-sex v same-sex divorce rate
  • reason for divorce

Average age of divorce in England & Wales

In 2017, the highest divorce rate for opposite-sex couples was among men between the ages of 45 and 49 (average age of 46.4), and women aged 40 to 44 (averaged at 43.9). Following a pattern that has remained unchanged since 2014, women are still more likely to divorce before the age of 45 while men divorce more than women at an older age. The report states that age is closely linked with the risk of divorce, believing that those who marry in their teens and early twenties are at a much higher chance of entering into divorce at a later stage in life. Against 2016’s statistics, the divorce rate in 2017 has fallen across every age group for both men and women except those aged 60 and over (a figure which has remained the same at 1.6 per 1,000 couples).

Duration of marriage

The mid-point of all durations of marriage in England and Wales in 2017 has increased slightly from 12.0 years in 2016, to 12.2 years. This figure has matched that of the historical high 12.2 years in 1972 according to the statistics.

Same-sex couple divorce rate rises

Despite the fall in opposite-sex divorces, 2017 saw a spike in divorces among same-sex couples. It was reported that there were 338 same-sex divorces in England and Wales – three times more than in 2016 (112 divorces), with 74% of those divorces happening among female couples. Following the same pattern of opposite-sex couples, (in which women divorce younger than men and vice versa), the average age at which a same-sex couple divorced in 2017 was 38.3 years old for women, and 42.0 years for men.

Reason for divorce in England & Wales

With 62% of all divorces being petitioned by the wife in opposite-sex couples in 2017, 52% of these were on the grounds of ‘unreasonable behaviour’. This has been the most common ground in which wives have petitioned a divorce since the 70’s. It has also been the most consistent reason for husbands since 2006, with 37% claiming unreasonable behaviour in 2017. The ground of unreasonable behaviour for divorce was even higher among same-sex couples: 83% among women stated unreasonable behaviour while 73% of divorces among men were petitioned on this ground.

The study also noted that the fall in divorce rates could be influenced by behavioural and attitude changes towards marriage, with many couples now choosing to cohabit rather than enter into marriage. This was seen previously – between 2003 and 2009 – when the decline in divorces was consistent with the decrease in marriages.

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Supreme Court rules unhappy marriage is not grounds for divorce

Supreme court judges ‘reluctantly’ upheld a previous family court ruling that Tini Owens, 69, was unable to divorce husband of 40 years, Hugh, who refuses to split. This particular case has highlighted the need to reform family law in the UK and introduce a ‘no-fault’ divorce.

The Divorce Process

Current law in England and Wales states that unless there is evidence of adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, then a divorce will only be granted after spouses have either:

  • lived apart for five years, or
  • lived apart for two years if both parties consent to the divorce.

Upholding the previous ruling, Supreme Court Judge Lord Wilson said:

“The appeal of Mrs Owens must be dismissed. She must remain married to Mr Owens for the time being.” He noted that Mrs Owens would be eligible for divorce but not until 2020 – when five years had passed since the couple separated.

Lord Wilson added that “Parliament may wish to consider whether to replace a law which denies Mrs Owens any present entitlement to a divorce in the above circumstances.”

Nigel Shepherd, former chair of Resolution – an organisation who intervened on Mrs Owen’s behalf – echoed the judges’ sentiment:

“Whilst the Supreme Court has, reluctantly, applied the law correctly, the fact that they have done so confirms there is now a divorce crisis in England and Wales, and the government needs to take urgent action to address it.

“In this day and age, it is outrageous that Mrs Owens – or anybody – is forced to remain trapped in a marriage, despite every judge involved in the case acknowledging it has come to an end in all but name.”

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New Funding to Help Survivors of Domestic Violence

Services providing support for survivors of domestic abuse have received a boost with the news that the Government is to make around £19 million of new funding available.

Councils working in partnership with charities and other organisations will be able to bid for a share of funding to support survivors of domestic abuse.

This will be available for a wide range of services to help survivors rebuild their lives; including the provision of refuge beds, education, and employment and life skills training.

This funding builds on £20 million allocated in 2016 to 2018 which has helped provide more than 2,200 new bed spaces in refuges and other specialist accommodation, supporting more than 19,000 survivors with a safe space to rebuild their lives.

The Government has also published updated guidelines for councils, created in partnership with experts, to help ensure their response to domestic abuse is as collaborative, robust and effective as it can be, meeting the needs of diverse communities including BAME, disabled and LGBT victims.

“The release of the next round of funding for refuges and other accommodation for women escaping domestic abuse is desperately needed, and much welcomed,” commented Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid. “Our national network of refuges not only save lives but transform them, helping women and their children to rebuild their lives.”

“Together we need to ensure that there is a sustainable, long-term funding solution for all domestic abuse services, including lifesaving refuges,” she added. “Only then can we guarantee that every survivor and her children can get the support they need to build a life free from domestic abuse.”

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Analysis Reveals Risk Factors for Partner Abuse

A recent publication from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has revealed which groups of women are most at risk of experiencing partner abuse.

Key Findings

Key findings from the analysis, which relates to women in England and Wales, include:

  • Young women were more likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months than older women.
  • Women who had a long-term illness or disability were more than twice as likely to have experienced some form of partner abuse (12.4%) in the last 12 months than women who did not (5.1%).
  • Bisexual women were nearly twice as likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months than heterosexual women (10.9% compared with 6.0%).
  • Women who identified with Mixed/Multiple ethnicities were more likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months (10.1%) than any other ethnic group.
  • Women living in households with an income of less than £10,000 were more than four times as likely (14.3%) to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months than women living in households with an income of £50,000 or more (3.3%).
  • Women living in social housing (11.1%) were nearly three times as likely to have experienced partner abuse in the last 12 months than women who were owner occupiers (4.1%).

Ending Violence Against Women

“Today’s analysis gives insight into the characteristics of women and girls who are more likely to experience partner abuse,” said an ONS spokesperson. “It also tells us about the types of households they live in. This can help to inform policies and services aimed at ending violence against women and girls – one of the key targets in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

Women’s Aid Response

Domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid issued a statement in response to the publication.

“From our work with survivors, we know that women of all ages are living with domestic abuse – regardless of whether they have just embarked on their first relationship or have been married for decades,” commented Sian Hawkins, Head of Campaigns and Public Affairs. “We also know that younger women experience abuse at shockingly high rates but are less likely to access vital support services. We want to change this.”

“Today’s ONS statistics show that a higher proportion of younger women between the ages of 16-24 experienced domestic abuse in the last year than women aged 45-59,” she said. “Our culture often portrays controlling behaviour as a sign of being desired or loved when in fact coercive and controlling behaviour is at the heart of domestic abuse. This can make it more difficult for younger women, who may be entering into their first relationship, to identify abusive behaviours or question them, and as a result they may not speak out about the abuse or know that domestic abuse services can help them.”

“That’s why we are calling on the government to use the Domestic Abuse Bill to break down the barriers facing young women in disclosing abuse and accessing help to ensure that every survivor gets the support she needs, when she needs it,” she added.

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Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

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