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Suzanne Townley

News Editor, Solicitors Journal

'Running down the clock': divorce rates drop – but are couples simply waiting for 6 April?

'Running down the clock': divorce rates drop – but are couples simply waiting for 6 April?


Quarterly family law court statistics also revealed case backlogs persist

The government’s quarterly family court statistics for October to December 2021 has revealed an estimated 58,762 new family law cases – down 17 per cent compared to the same period in 2020.

22,683 divorce petitions were filed, which meant divorce petitions and matrimonial cases were down around 25 per cent.

According to leading private wealth law firm, Boodle Hatfield,107,724 applications were made in 202, which suggests divorce rates are at an all-time low.

Boodle Hatfield said separating couples may be waiting for the introduction of ‘no fault’ divorce, on 6 April, which will enable couples to split without assignment of blame.

Prior to this, unless couples had been separated for at least two years (and the other party consented), adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour needed to be cited to evidence the marriage had irretrievably broken down.

Boodle Hatfield partner Emily Brand said: “The low number of divorce applications suggest separating spouses may have been running down the clock until the law changes."

“Blaming one person on the breakdown of a marriage can create acrimony during what is an already extremely difficult time. The introduction of No Fault divorce may start the process on a less antagonistic footing”. 

Law Society president I. Stephanie Boyce said: “The family law system is seeing its biggest change in 50 years on 6 April, when so-called ‘no fault’ divorce comes into effect.

“We will be monitoring closely to see if there is a spike in the number of cases in future statistical reports and will feed this back to our members”.

Brand warned the introduction of no fault divorce may lead to new issues: “[T]he absence of the cathartic relief of a behaviour-based petition might lead the wounded party to start satellite proceedings in an attempt to seek justice elsewhere. This may particularly be the case in the current environment where allegations of coercive and controlling behaviour are rocketing." 

The quarterly statistics reported domestic violence cases were down 5 per cent compared to last year. However, worryingly, the Office for National Statistics found there were 845,734 domestic-abuse related violence instances in the year ending March 2021 – a six per cent increase compared to the same period in 2020. 

Commenting on the family court backlogs, Boyce said: “We have voiced our concern about the significant backlogs in the family courts – which pre-date the pandemic. The existing problems have been compounded in the last two years.

“The impact on timeliness also continues to be felt, particularly in delays to care proceedings. On average, care cases took 47 weeks to reach first disposal in October to December 2021, up 5 weeks compared to the same quarter in 2020.

“Delays can themselves cause significant harm as well as uncertainty for the parties involved”.

Boyce said the HM Courts & Tribunals Service’s (HMCTS) previous estimate that it may take three years to return to pre-pandemic levels, was “a great cause for concern, particularly for cases that concern children and family matters”.

She added: “From the outset, we’ve said the UK government must maximise existing court capacity, boosting it through Nightingale courts to allow more in-person hearings to take place safely.

“The UK government must ensure, so far as possible, that there are sufficient fee-paid and full-time judges to deal with existing and new caseloads”.