Avoiding the fall out this Christmas

Mandeep Clair

Article written by Mandeep Clair, Solicitor, Family department

The COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty of 2020 has had a significant impact on many relationships. These relationships have faced serious pressure and divorce rates have had their biggest percentage rise since 1972. With this in mind, family professionals and support groups are encouraging couples to focus on the wellbeing of the family over the festive season.

Traditionally, more people petition for divorce in January than at any other time of the year, which is attributed to the pressure of the family Christmas get-together. This season it’s expected that many more relationships, already under stress as a result of the life challenges brought about by the pandemic, will struggle to survive.

Early in the pandemic, a survey by the relationship charity Relate found that nearly a quarter of people believe lockdown had placed additional pressure on their relationship, creating a ‘make or break’ environment. A follow-on survey found 8% saying lockdown had made them realise they needed to end their relationship. However, 43% said it had brought them closer. This later finding supports a report by the Marriage Foundation suggesting that more marriages improved during the pandemic than worsened.

It’s great to hear that seeing more of each other has helped some couples to work on improving their relationships. Unfortunately, these figures also suggest that vulnerable relationships have felt the impact of the lockdown, for both the close proximity it brought and also the economic and social impact. As family lawyers, we saw the lockdown was hardest on those who were considering or had already started the process of divorce, as many were still living together.

Now we have the pressure of a concentrated, and uncharacteristic, Christmas, where decisions will have to be made about who is part of a bubble, with further disruption and restrictions ahead. December 2020 will bring unique challenges, but the months ahead will continue to be a test for everyone’s relationships, against a backdrop of a continuing trend towards divorce.

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show an 18% spike in the rates of opposite-sex divorce in 2019 with 107,599 cases. While the size of the increase is partly due to a backlog of divorce petitions which resulted in higher numbers of divorce petitions being completing during 2019, this figure is the highest since 2014. It is also the largest annual percentage rise since 1972, when The Divorce Reform Act 1969 opened the way to an easier process for divorce.  Alongside this, the number of same-sex divorces among both male and female couples has increased each year since 2015. In 2019, there were 822 divorces among same-sex couples, which is nearly double the previous year and of these, 72% were female couples.

Most divorce petitions in opposite-sex couples came from the wife, at 62%, and unreasonable behaviour was the most common ground for the divorce, cited by 35% of all husbands and 49% of all wives.

While no-fault divorce will be available in future, with the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 having received Royal Assent, grounds for divorce under the existing Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 require one party to prove their partner is at fault through adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour. The only alternative to a fault-based petition currently is a period of separation: two years where both parties agree to divorce, or five years if one side does not consent.

If the worst happens and couples feel they cannot see a future together in 2021, then working out how to navigate the split in a way that is supportive of each other, and most importantly any children involved, is best for everyone. Talking things through is always best and getting round the table with some expert input before you make any agreement over asset sharing or custody arrangements is a good idea.

Some people are worried about how to access advice while the COVID-19 restrictions and health concerns are with us, but for family lawyers across the country, we know how important it is to be there for couples, and when we can’t meet face to face, there are all the other ways to talk things through, whether video calls, telephone, email or messaging.

Ending a marriage is one of the toughest things anyone will ever deal with, but a collaborative approach can go a long way towards easing the emotional distress. The best Christmas present for the whole family is being focused on keeping communication positive.

If you wish to discuss any aspect of this article further or require specific advice on a family matter, please feel free to email me or call me on 020 8858 6971.