'No-fault' divorce bill backed by MPs

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Wedding cakeImage source, Getty Images

A bill introducing "no-fault" divorces in England and Wales has been backed by MPs.

It passed its first hurdle in the Commons by 231 votes to 16 against, following a debate.

Currently, in order to start divorce proceedings immediately, one spouse has to allege adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion has taken place.

Under the proposed law, they will only have to state that the marriage has broken down irretrievably.

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill - which has been passed by the House of Lords - also removes the possibility of contesting the decision to divorce.

At the moment, someone wishing to obtain a divorce without the consent of their spouse must live apart from them for five years.

Divorce proceedings will still be challengeable on certain grounds including fraud and coercion. Currently fewer than 2% of divorce cases are contested.

The bill also introduces a new option, allowing couples to jointly apply for a divorce, where the decision to separate is a mutual one.

And it replaces the terms "decree nisi" and "decree absolute" with "conditional order" and "final order". "Petitioners" will also become "applicants".

Under the proposals, there must be a minimum six-month period between the lodging of a petition to the divorce being made final.

'Painful process'

Opening the debate, Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said the bill will seek to make separation "less traumatic".

He told MPs: "No-one sets out thinking that their marriage is going to end, no-one wants their marriage to break down, none of us are therefore indifferent when a couple's lifelong commitment has sadly deteriorated.

"It is a very sad circumstance but the law, I believe, should reduce conflict when it arises.

"Where divorce is inevitable, this bill seeks to make the legal process less painful."

Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis said he had to put the blame on his partner during his own divorce, saying: "I would have preferred to have had a no-fault divorce.

"It's a very painful process."

But, raising concerns about the bill, the DUP's Jim Shannon said: "More funding must be allocated to counselling services to provide trained help for those in marriage difficulties and to prioritise saving a marriage."

Mr Buckland replied: "It is, I think, the sad experience that by the time a decision to issue a divorce petition has been made then matters have sadly gone beyond that."

Labour's shadow justice secretary David Lammy says his party welcomed the bill as it offers a "common-sense approach" and respects the institution of marriage and civil partnerships.

He said the new law "will promote conciliations and compromise" and it will reduce legal costs which can reach "eye-watering sums quite unnecessarily".

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Image caption,
Tini Owens was refused a divorce by the courts

The bill cleared its first hurdle - its second reading - in the House of Commons; despite some Conservatives expressing opposition.

In a letter to the Telegraph, MPs including Sir Desmond Swayne, Sir John Hayes and Fiona Bruce urged the government to focus on helping couples reconcile instead of "undermining the commitment of marriage".

They said the bill was badly-timed, arguing that many "otherwise durable" marriages were under "intense Covid-related strain".

'Blame game'

The move to change divorce laws was partly prompted by the case of Tini Owens - a woman from Worcestershire who wanted to divorce her husband of 40 years.

However, because her husband contested the split, the law stated she could only obtain a divorce by living apart from him for five years.

Mrs Owens said she was "desperately unhappy" in the marriage but Mr Owens disagreed and said the couple still had a "few years" to enjoy.

In 2018, her case was heard and rejected by Supreme Court justices - one of whom said, they had ruled against Mrs Owens with "no enthusiasm whatsoever" and that it was up to Parliament to change the law.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We will always uphold the institution of marriage. But when divorce cannot be avoided, the law must not create conflict between couples that so often harms the children involved.

"Our reforms remove the needless 'blame game', while ensuring there is a minimum six-month time frame to allow for reflection and the opportunity to turn back."