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Why getting divorced just got easier

Written by: Emma Lunn
‘No-fault’ divorces aimed at reducing conflict between separating couples come into force today.

Changes to the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act (2020) represent the biggest shake up in divorce law for more than half a century.

Separating couples no longer need to apportion blame for the breakdown of their marriage, helping them to instead focus on key practical decisions involving children or their finances.

Previously, one spouse was forced to make accusations about the other’s conduct, such as ‘unreasonable behavior’ or adultery, or face years of separation before a divorce could be granted. This was regardless of whether a couple had made a mutual decision to separate.

The changes mean that a spouse, or a couple jointly, can now apply for divorce by stating their marriage has broken down irretrievably. It removes unnecessary finger-pointing and acrimony at a time where emotions are already running high.

Importantly, it stops one partner from vindictively contesting a divorce and locking their spouse into an unhappy marriage. In some cases, domestic abusers can use their ability to challenge the process to further harm their victims or to trap them in the relationship. The reforms will put an end to this behavior.

The act also introduces a new minimum timeframe of 20 weeks between the start of proceedings and when individuals may apply for a conditional order of divorce. This will offer time to agree important arrangements for the future such as those involving children, finance and property.

Dominic Raab, secretary of state for justice, said: “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.

“That’s why we are allowing couples to apply for divorce without having to prove fault, ending the blame game, where a marriage has broken down irretrievably, and enabling couples to move on with their lives without the bitter wrangling of an adversarial divorce process.”

The reforms are part of wider government efforts to reduce conflict in the family courts, to protect children from harm and divert suitable cases away from the courtrooms.

This includes a mediation voucher scheme helping thousands of families resolve disputes without the need for often lengthy and costly courtroom battles.

Helen Bowns, partner and head of the family team at law firm Shakespeare Martineau, said: “The introduction of no-fault divorce is by far the biggest change we’ve seen to UK family law for many years. As well as removing the requirement to place blame, it means couples can apply jointly for a divorce, something that we have never seen before. It also means that a divorce can no longer be defended, ensuring situations such as the Owens v Owens case no longer happen, where one person is trapped in a marriage for five years before proceedings can begin.

“Whilst it should be universally welcomed, divorcing couples must not assume that it’s instantaneous. There’s still a process that needs to be followed and it won’t be possible to legally separate overnight.

“Even after today, couples must still wait 20 weeks to apply for a decree nisi or under the new legislation, a ‘conditional order’ and then a further six weeks for the decree absolute, or ‘final order’. In total, a no-fault divorce will still take a minimum of 26 weeks, or 6.5 months, to enable finances and child arrangements to be sorted.”

The new legislation will only apply to couples who filed for divorce through an online portal after 31 March 2022. Anyone who was going through the process before that date will still be treated according to the older legislation.

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