No-fault divorce: Domestic abuse victims receive lifeline
Rachel Fisher argues the new reforms in divorce laws are a much-needed change
Law firms across the country have eagerly awaited the implementation of no-fault divorce, which came into effect on 6 April 2022. This has been a long overdue reform to the divorce law, and arguably the biggest change the area has seen for half a century.
Couples will now be able to obtain a divorce without having to place blame on either party under the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020. It is hoped this will make divorce proceedings more amicable, while one of the primary groups that will benefit is victims of domestic abuse.
At Stowe Family Law, we recently conducted a survey of 400 people on no-fault divorce. 72 per cent of respondents believed one of the primary reasons for divorce is due to one party doing something, or a number of things, wrong. While this is not always the case – hence the change in law to allow couples to split without the necessity of attributing blame – the reality for those who suffer from domestic abuse is that proof of such is often difficult to evidence and, in many cases, traumatic to recall. The law often failed those victims by asking for evidence of the behaviour they have experienced. This is a particularly prominent problem for women who tend to be the instigators of divorce (67 per cent).
Unfit for purpose
The previous law, in place since 1969, was claimed to not be ‘fit for purpose’, specifically by Rights of Women, a charity set up to provide women with the legal advice they need to fully understand the way the law works and their own legal rights, working to achieve justice and equality for all women in the law. Their research highlighted the fault-based system forced women to stay in marriages, despite suffering domestic abuse, much longer than they would have done had there been an alternative way to divorce.
Divorcing on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour or adultery often created further hostility and an unsafe environment for the victim, especially if they continued to live in the family home. This can also be extremely damaging for any children the couple may have, which is often flagged as a primary reason why women, particularly, remain in abusive relationships.
If a petitioner wished to use unreasonable behaviour as the grounds for the divorce, they would have to give the detailed reasons for the breakdown. For a victim of domestic abuse, this could be a life-or-death situation – naming abuse as the justification for the divorce could well put their life at risk.
This comes alongside statistics that 25 per cent of women will suffer some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime. Two to three women are murdered every week by their partners or ex-partners in England and Wales. In addition, the latest ONS figures show over 845,000 people in the UK are in abusive relationships. The previous divorce law had a negative impact on women who have experienced domestic abuse. Combined with the emotional process of the divorce itself, this can be simply too overwhelming a task for victims to undertake, particularly when they are often called upon to recall traumatic experiences.
A way forward
No fault divorce will hopefully begin to put an end to this. With the end to the ‘blame game’, victims of domestic abuse will no longer be required to ‘prove’ they are entitled to a divorce. The application for divorce itself can no longer be contested under the new system – a major step forward in helping victims get out of their marriages. There is already evidence that the new reforms have, and will continue to have, a real positive impact on victims of domestic abuse.
For those suffering at the hands of abusive partners, no fault divorce will hopefully provide a real sense of comfort. These long overdue changes to the UK’s divorce laws will empower victims to step out of their marriages in a far less contentious manner.
Rachel Fisher is a senior solicitor at Stowe Family Law stowefamilylaw.co.uk