No fault divorce - UK divorce law reforms explained

14 June 2021

No fault divorce is due to come into effect in England and Wales in April 2022. We look at the implications of the UK divorce law reforms and explain how no fault divorce will work in England and Wales.

The Government confirmed in April 2019 that divorce law in England and Wales would be changing, with the introduction of no fault divorce. This means that couples will be able to get divorced without one person needing to lay blame on the other.

Originally, the government had planned to implement these changes in autumn 2021, but this has now been delayed until spring 2022.

Current divorce law in England and Wales

In order to be granted a divorce in England or Wales, the Court needs to be convinced that the marriage has irretrievably broken down, to a point where it can't be saved.

Under current laws, unless a couple lives separately for at least 2 years they can only get a divorce if one person blames the other for this irretrievable breakdown of their marriage, and this must fall into the category of either adultery or unreasonable behaviour.

These blame-based options are two of 5 legally recognised reasons for the breakdown of a marriage under current laws. The others are:

  • desertion (where one person has deserted the other for 2 years or more without explanation)
  • 2 years' separation (provided both people agree to the divorce)
  • 5 years' separation (without this agreement)

This means that unless a couple has been separated for at least 2 years, one person must document examples of the other's behaviour during the marriage and present this as evidence to the court. The court will then decide whether they believe this behaviour resulted in the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.

No fault divorce explained

This is all set to change in autumn 2021, with the introduction of no fault divorce. Here is a breakdown of what the divorce law reforms will look like and how no fault divorce will work after these changes have come into effect...

1. Divorce can be granted without one person blaming the other

The most important element of no fault divorce is, of course, the removal of blame from the divorce process. Under the new laws, couples will be able to get divorced solely on the basis that the marriage has broken down, without needing to cite one of the 5 reasons for divorce (as is currently required).

2. Couples will be able to apply for divorce jointly

Under current laws, one person needs to issue the divorce proceedings against the other, but under the no fault divorce system, both people will be able to make the application jointly.

3. There will be a minimum of 20 weeks between application and divorce becoming final

A minimum timeframe of 20 weeks has been introduced to counter concerns that the reforms will make divorce a quicker and easier option for couples rather than trying to save their marriage. This 'period of reflection' will give couples an opportunity to reflect and work through their differences before committing to a divorce.

4. It will no longer be possible to contest a divorce

Under the current system of fault-based divorce, one person submits a divorce petition, citing their spouse's behaviour as the reason for the divorce, and their spouse can contest this. This is exactly what has happened in the high-profile divorce case of Tini and Hugh Owens. Under the new no fault divorce system this option will be removed.

Justice Secretary, David Gauke, said that that the new no fault divorce laws will, "help end the blame game." These changes are set to come into effect in autumn 2021.

The no fault divorce debate

No fault divorce first came onto the political agenda back in 2015, when Conservative MP Richard Bacon presented the House of Commons with the No Fault Divorce Bill. Since then, campaigners have been pushing for UK divorce law to be overhauled, so that couples can be granted a divorce purely on the basis that their marriage has irretrievably broken down without the need to lay blame on one person.

On one side of the debate was the argument that the fault-based system can make a previously amicable split quickly turn sour, raising tensions under already stressful circumstances. Some felt that this could damage relations between the couple beyond repair, which has been highlighted as a particularly serious issue where children are involved.

Several high-profile individuals voiced their support for no fault divorce, including Baroness Hale (former President of the Supreme Court) and Sir James Munby (former President of the Family Division of the High Court).

On the other side of the debate, some felt that making the divorce process simpler could be damaging to the sanctity of marriage. There was a worry that if divorce is quicker and easier, couples may opt for this as an easy option without first trying to save their marriage.

For more information on the arguments for and against no fault divorce during this debate, see no fault divorce pros and cons.

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