No-fault divorces planned in major reform to 'archaic' law

No-fault divorces would be introduced under a planned shake-up of the 'archaic' law governing the end of marriages, the Justice Secretary has announced.

The need for couples to separate or allege “fault” would be taken away under a proposed change unveiled by David Gauke.

Spouses would also be stripped of any right to contest a divorce application made by their partner, a consultation launched on Saturday has proposed.

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Mr Gauke, who had previously publicly called for a “less antagonistic” system said: “Marriage will always be one of our most sacred institutions, but when a relationship ends it cannot be right for the law to create or increase conflict between divorcing couples.

“That is why we will remove the archaic requirements to allege fault or show evidence of separation, making the process less acrimonious and helping families look to the future.”

Under the current law in England and Wales, unless people can prove there was adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, the only way to obtain a divorce without their spouse’s agreement is to live apart for five years.

The proposed changes include:

- Making “the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage” the sole grounds for a divorce

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- Removing the need to live apart or provide evidence of a partner’s misconduct

- A new court notification process that can be triggered by one or both parties

- Removing the opportunity for the other spouse to contest the divorce application

Pressure for reform intensified after Tini Owens lost a legal battle to divorce Hugh, her her husband of 40 years, in July.

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She had told the Supreme Court that it was a “loveless” relationship and he had behaved unreasonably, arguing she should not reasonably be expected to stay married.

But Mr Owens denied her claims and refused to agree to a divorce, leading the court to rule against her “with reluctance”.

Lord Wilson said the “question for Parliament” was whether the law governing “entitlement to divorce” remained “satisfactory”.

In the forward to the consultation Mr Gauke said the case had “generated broader questions about what the law requires of people going through divorce and what it achieves in practice”.

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He said the current need to find fault “needlessly rakes up the past to justify the legal ending of a relationship that is no longer a beneficial and functioning one” and was not in the public interest.

Noting that almost 110,000 couples divorced last year while “constrained by a requirement in place for nearly half a century”, he added: “When a marriage has irretrievably broken down, the law should not frustrate achieving better outcomes, especially for children.”

Labour has also backed the introduction of no-fault divorces but shadow justice minister Richard Burgon previously urged the Government to simply change the law rather than undertaking a consultation.

Specialist lawyer Mark Harper, who is based at law firm Hughes Fowler Carruthers, said: “It has taken 22 years since the last unworkable no-fault divorce law for the Government to accept the need for further reform.

“This will save 65,000 or more divorcing couples each year from having to prove fault to get a divorce, which will mean a better and more amicable start to those proceedings.”

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