Divorce affects more than 100,000 families in England and Wales every year. If separating couples want to get divorced without waiting for two years (or five if the other person does not consent, as with the recent case of Owens vs Owens), one person must submit a petition detailing how the other is at ‘fault’. In 2015, 60% of English and Welsh divorces were granted on adultery or behaviour. In Scotland, where a divorce can be obtained after one year if both parties agree, this figure was 6%.
The research, led by Professor Liz Trinder at the University of Exeter and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, is the first empirical study since the 1980s of how the divorce law in England and Wales is operating. The researchers recommend removing fault entirely from the divorce law and replacing it with a notification system where divorce would be available if one or both parties register that the marriage has broken down irretrievably and that intention is confirmed by one or both parties after a minimum period of six months.
The study included interviews with people going through divorce, focus groups with lawyers, observation of the court scrutiny process and analysis of divorce court files, coupled with a national opinion poll and comparative analysis of divorce law in other countries.
Divorce petitions are often not accurate descriptions of why a marriage broke down and the courts make no judgement about whether allegations are true
In a national opinion survey, 43% of people who had been identified as being at fault by their spouse disagreed with the reasons cited for the marriage breakdown and 37% of respondents in the court file analysis denied or rebutted the allegations made against them by their spouse. In practice these rebuttals are ignored except in the rare cases where the respondent is able to defend the case (as in the recent case of Owens v Owens). The court did not raise questions about the truth of a petition in any of the 592 case files analysed, despite evidence that respondents disagreed with the claims made.
The removal of legal aid for all but a minority of cases (e.g. domestic violence), means that in practice, few people have the financial resources to defend themselves. For these people, getting divorced means accepting that the court’s decision relies on a version of events they do not consider to be true.
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