These days, divorce is rarely out of the news headlines.
While gossip columns cover rumours and facts about celebrity splits, the more serious sections of the media cover the issues raised by the UK’s current divorce laws and, in particular, the question of whether they are still fit for purpose.
The Five Grounds for Divorce in the UK
There are only five grounds for divorce accepted throughout the whole of the UK.
Three of these relate to couples having split up in practical terms and therefore are essentially just recognising an existing state.
One is adultery (which is legally defined as having sexual relations with a member of the opposite sex) and one is unreasonable behaviour.
Scotland permits divorce where one party has undergone gender reassignment surgery and has obtained an interim gender-recognition certificate. No part of the UK, as yet, has a “no faults” divorce option, not even Scotland. Scotland does, however, allow for divorce in a much shorter time frame than other parts of the UK.
Where both parties consent to a divorce, a year’s separation is sufficient, as compared to two years in England and Wales.
Where only one party consents to a divorce, two years’ of separation is acceptable, as compared to five years in England and Wales.
The Issue of “Unreasonable Behaviour”
Research from Oxford University highlights a significant increase in the number of people seeking divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour. In 1971 it was used in 17% of divorces granted to wives and 2% of divorces granted to men.
In 2016 the figures were 51% and 36% respectively. This raises the obvious question of what has caused this increase and it would be very interesting to see the figures split out for Scotland, post the implementation of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006, (which amended the Divorce (Scotland) Act 1976) and England and Wales over the same period.
This might go some way to answering the question of whether this change reflects a genuine feeling on the part of one of the separating spouses, a feeling which can be substantiated in court, or if it is simply a convenient way to allow people to make a clean break and go their separate ways without the need for an extended period of separation.
The Advantages of Splitting Quickly
Most of us can probably appreciate the idea that people prefer to get unpleasant experiences over and done with quickly and even when the split is amicable, divorce probably comes under that category, at least for the majority of people.
There are, however, practical reasons for wanting the decoupling to move forward as quickly as possible and that is the fact that divorce proceedings finalize the divisions of a couple’s assets (except in very exceptional circumstances).
This can be particularly important where there is a significant difference in income between the two divorcing parties as being left in matrimonial limbo could have a serious detrimental effect on the lower-earning partner since they would only be eligible for a financial settlement once the divorce proceedings were actually underway.
Kerry Smith is the head of family law at K J Smith Solicitors, a specialist family law firm who deal with a wide range of issues including divorce, domestic violence, civil partnerships and prenuptial agreements.