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UK divorce laws... antiquated and out of date? It's time for change.

View profile for Susan Howarth
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Rare divorce case highlights the need for reform

The final ruling in what’s been described as the most significant divorce case of the century has not only caused devastation and one party ‘unable to move forward with their life’, but further fuelled the debate surrounding current UK marriage laws.

For many family lawyers and judges, including the UK’s most senior family judge Baroness Hale, the case, although rare, is an example of why divorce laws in England and Wales are outdated and the government needs to change them, now more than ever.

Owens vs Owens: a ‘broken down’ marriage

Unhappy for many years, feeling locked in a loveless marriage and living separately for some time, Tini Owens wanted to divorce her husband and filed to do so in 2015. Her husband, however, has always opposed the divorce and believed they still had a few years to enjoy together.

After the lower courts decided Mrs Owens was not entitled to a divorce, their battle was taken to the highest court in England and Wales - and at the end of July the Supreme Court handed down its highly-awaited judgment, with all five judges unanimously dismissing Mrs Owens’ appeal ‘with reluctance’ – she was refused a divorce from her husband.

Mrs Owens, 68 now has to stay married to Mr Owens, 80 until 2020 at which point she has grounds to divorce under the current law, having had 5 years of separation (without consent).

Divorce in the UK: the blame game

The issue has been that Mrs Owens’ petition to divorce did not fall within the current UK law guidelines for divorce, whereby a couple have to prove in court that their marriage has irretrievably broken down.

At least one of five specific reasons must be shown, with the main 3 reasons cited being:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable behaviour
  • Separation

The biggest problem? The first two reasons are based on forcing divorcing couples to assign blame (‘fault’) in an already stressful and painful situation.

And there lies the rub: the blame game.

Resolution, the family justice body, has revealed that, since the last unsuccessful attempt to introduce ‘no fault’ divorce, in the 1996 Family Law Act, over 1.7million people have assigned blame in their divorce process. Nigel Shepherd, Resolution’s past Chair and long-time campaigner for ‘no fault’ divorce has said ‘that’s a huge number of people making allegations against their ex – many of whom didn’t have to.’    

Chris Sherwood, chief executive of counselling charity Relate, told BBC news that “blame needs to be taken out of the system”.

Time to catch up with the rest of the world

Legal in the US, Australia and Scotland, ‘no fault’ divorces have been ‘under consideration’ in England and Wales for over 20 years, yet still the issue is batted around, seemingly with no urgency.

And whilst some believe a ‘no-fault’ divorce system would undermine the institution of marriage, there is an increasingly strong mood for reform.

Following the Owens vs Owens verdict, the Supreme Court judges urged Parliament to consider changing the law and The Ministry of Justice said: “The current system of divorce creates unnecessary antagonism in an already difficult situation – we are already looking closely at possible reforms to the system.”

Furthermore, a private members' bill has been introduced into Parliament by former family judge Baroness Butler-Sloss, seeking a review of the current law.

The campaign to introduce ‘no fault’ divorce is only set to continue gathering momentum, so all eyes are on Parliament to take action.

Expert advice, here to help

Regardless of the reasons cited, at SH&Co. we know that the prospect of divorce can seem daunting, overwhelming and confusing, not to mention upsetting and stressful.

That is why we offer lots of opportunity to get free advice and information, to give yourself time to think and consider your options before making any major decisions.

We run four FREE drop-in family law clinics every week or a FREE 30-minute consultation with a family law specialist.

For more details, call us on 01606 48777.