New figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) last week revealed a surprise 10 per cent drop in the divorce rate in England and Wales.
I say surprise, because it was a surprise to us as we have seen no significant drop off in cases in the last year. However, when you dig deeper into the headline stat, the reason for the fall could largely be due to the slower processing of divorce paperwork by the courts. This again highlights the immense pressure the system is under and how only a radical move to modernise, more widely embracing technology and introducing a no-fault divorce, can help save the system.
Unreasonable behaviour still the most common reason for divorce
The figures made interesting reading. The average length of a marriage ending in divorce is 12.5 years, 90,871 divorces of opposite-sex couples in 2018 was a decrease of 10.6% compared with 2017 and the lowest number since 1971, and unreasonable behaviour remained the most common reason cited for a parting of the ways (46%).
This last statistic is significant. Unreasonable behaviour covers a multitude of sins. The petitioner is required to list examples of unreasonable behaviour. This can be anything from snoring, to not loading the dishwasher, to leaving sweaty clothes in a sports bag, to not spending enough time with the children. Listing these faults can enflame the divorce process and extend the time it takes to go through the legal ending a marriage.
The introduction of a no-fault divorce, talked about for years and which has gained widespread support, would help thousands of couples each year and lead to less acrimonious and faster divorces. However, it seems to be on the back-burner and we can only hope that a new Parliament with a new Government will see the importance of this legal change.
The acknowledgement in the stats that the delays in courts processing paperwork could ultimately be behind the fall that is perhaps most noteworthy and could add to the impetus for procedural and legal change.
Backlog in processing divorce cases
Quarterly figures from the Ministry of Justice’s Family Courts service suggest a backlog in processing divorce claims last year led to the lower figures but there was actually a rise in divorce petitions. This could then translate into around 8% higher figures for this year when the stats are compiled.
It notes a five-week increase in the average time taken from the date of a divorce petition being lodged to the decree absolute – taking it to a staggering 54.3 weeks. Over a year to get divorced just seems incredible. The frustrating wait for the courts to process things makes a difficult process all the more stressful.
The system needs to modernise and move away from the paper-based system which has been in place for so long. There is no need to rely on snail mail, emails should be accepted by all courts and it should not be ignored that more resource is needed to get things back on an even keel.
A no-fault divorce is not a silver bullet for all the ills, but it could certainly be a shot in the arm of the family courts system if it was just prioritised by the Government.
Woolley & Co family law solicitors