The triple whammy set to send UK divorce rates soaring

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The first month of a new year always sees a rise in divorces, but in 2013 it could reach record levels. Rod McPhee spoke to legal experts to find out why.

AT the start of almost every new year, lawyers see a near-constant flow of unhappy couples filing through their front doors. In the first few weeks of January, often the first few days of January, they are besieged by wives and husbands who have decided to make a clean break.

Compared to an average month, solicitors report a 25 per cent rise in the number of people approaching them to handle their divorce – and it’s so predictable many firms can even pinpoint a D-Day when the number of approaches reach a peak. The story which their clients chronicle is equally predictable.

“You see it every year,” says Peter Morris, family law partner at Irwin Mitchell in Leeds. “Christmas and New Year brings into sharp focus any cracks in a couple’s relationship and the holiday period tends to force those cracks apart.

“And, of course, the ‘new year’ is such a powerful symbol for change that they think: ‘If I’m going to do something then now is the right time to do it’

“Interestingly there doesn’t tend to be any major event to force people apart – like an extra-marital affair, for example – it just tends to be relationships where a split was always going to happen. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’, just ‘when’ and it tends to be when people enter a new year.”

But it isn’t just the fresh start ethos that motivates couples to part, recently there has been speculation that the recession has led to more divorces – though the statistics paint a mixed picture.

Social studies in the UK have shown that unemployment and social downturns in the housing market may be associated with family instability. And when data was published by the Office for National Statistics which showed divorce levels increased by 4.9 per cent from 2009 to 2010, it was seized upon as proof.

But that same figure actually fell last year, and since the divorce rate has continually fallen over the last decade, from a 2003 peak of 153,065 a year to 117,558 at the last count, it could be dismissed as a statistical anomaly. Plus, the rise in numbers of cohabiting unmarried couples has soared, skewing the overall picture.

Any overview would be best formed once the financial downturn has passed. Many believe that couples who are on the cusp of breaking up are forced to sit tight when a recession hits, but as soon as the dust settles on uncertainty they take decisive action. For example, in 1993, just after the recession of John Major’s premiership, there was a spike.

“When the recession first came along the divorce work seemed to dry up,” says Mr Morris. “It was as if someone had turned off a tap. People who would have normally split up decided to do nothing. But as time has gone on the financial uncertainty has become the norm and more people have decided to go ahead and take decisive action anyway. And that’s been reflected in the volume of work we’ve been handling over the past year, most notably in the first days of this month.

“I think couples who are in this situation can’t sit tight forever and, in a small number of cases some people realise they’ll actually be better off if they part company.

“At the minute the impact of the recession is difficult to determine exactly, but there’s little doubt it is having some kind of impact.”

But perhaps the biggest influence on the January divorce rush is likely to be changes to the criteria surrounding legal aid.

From April the Government will cease offering financial help to pay for divorce legal bills. Though in some cases, such as those involving domestic violence, money will still be available.

“Solicitors are definitely expecting to see a bottleneck in cases,” says Julian Hawkhead, partner at the Leeds office of Stowe Family Law. “And, coupled with the recession and the usual January rush, it’s largely down to couples wanting to sort out their divorce before the new rules come into force in a few months’ time.”

There’s little doubt that making it easier, or more difficult, to divorce has an impact on the figures. The introduction of the Divorce Reform Act on January 1, 1971, made parting company with your husband or wife much simpler, and as a result, the number of divorces soared by almost 50 per cent in the space of a decade. It remains to be seen how profound a change we will experience in 2013, but there are already strong indications.

“I’m never surprised by the numbers of people coming in 
to seek advice on divorce during January,” says Mr Hawkhead “But we did open for a few days between Christmas and New 
Year and even then we had 
people coming in asking for 
advice – now, that really did surprise me.”