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Mandeep Clair

Article written by Mandeep Clair, Solicitor, Family department

Following the nationwide lockdown, there have been a surge in divorce enquiries which is in line with the spike in COVID-19 transmissions. There are concerns that this may see more relationships take a hit.

Traditionally, the ‘back to school’ period sees a peak in petitions for divorce but according to divorce professionals, this autumn has seen a bigger number of distressed couples seeking support.

Data from the Citizens Advice charity highlighted a 25% rise in searches for advice on divorce during the first weekend in September, compared with the same weekend last year. This trend has continued replacing issues such as benefits and redundancy, which had been top search terms at the earlier stages of the pandemic.

The September surge is often attributed to families being forced into each other’s company during summer holidays, which may be the tip over point for those in already unstable relationships.

The lockdown period was effectively a very extended holiday, with no way of taking a break or a day on your own. This has been a very tough year for everyone, but when your relationship is going through hard times, it can seem like there is nowhere to turn. Having to ascribe blame to get a swift divorce has always tended to spark disagreement and stir up grievances, so if the worst happens, getting some guidance early on can help in managing emotion. When children are involved, it is particularly important to try and have a positive co-operative approach, especially with the ongoing challenges we all face in managing our lives through COVID-19.

The prospect of no-fault divorce without a period of separation is now on the horizon after the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 received Royal Assent in July. This marks the biggest change on the pathway towards divorce since the Divorce Reform Act 1969, which first allowed people to end marriages without having to prove fault, with separation of two years if both parties agreed, or five years if only one party agreed. The 1969 Act also provided a faster, fault-based alternative to a period of separation, which was to cite grounds of unreasonable behaviour or adultery to demonstrate that the marriage had irretrievably broken down.

The situation has remained unchanged ever since, and in recent years the two-year separation rule has come under criticism as being out of touch with attitudes and too slow for couples who want to move on, but require the financial settlement that comes with divorce. In such circumstances, couples have been more likely to cite unreasonable behaviour or adultery to get a speedier outcome, leading to calls for an end to blaming.

The new legislation brings the opportunity to divorce on more amicable territory as parties will not have to rely on the ‘blame game’. It will be enough that the relationship has broken down and indeed couples will be allowed to make a joint application if they wish, rather than one party having to set the process in motion.

Under the new rules, which are expected to come into effect in autumn 2021, parties to a divorce will no longer be able to challenge divorce simply because they do not wish it to happen.

However, there will be new requirements on timeframe, with a minimum period of 20 weeks from the date of the divorce petition through to the Conditional Divorce Order, which is the equivalent of the Decree Nisi stage. After that, couples will have to wait a further six weeks before they can apply for the Final Divorce Order, which replaces what is currently known as the Decree Absolute.

This September, the family department launched our engaging questionnaire option for clients which is designed to gather key details for new family law matters. This will mean that upon receipt of the completed questionnaire, our family lawyers will be in a position to provide advice to their clients at the first meeting rather than spending time fact gathering. This secure service, which is available on all types of device, is available 24 hours per day, seven days per week and has the ability to save progress meaning you can pause and later re-start the process, returning to the particular point you had last reached at a later time.

To discuss the content of this article or for specific advice on a family matter, please feel free to email me or contact me on 020 8305 4235.