Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020: the blame game is over

It has been confirmed by Secretary of State for Justice, following a Parliamentary question raised on 7th June 2021 that the widely anticipated Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 (‘The Act’) will come into force on 6th April 2022. This was a result of Ministry of Justice and the Family Procedure Rule Committee collaborating closely to bring about this ground breaking change.

In short, this means that married couples or those in a civil partnership in England and Wales will be able to divorce without assigning blame to one another.

The Act has been considered a crucial development in Family Law in the last 50 years and most Family Law practitioners will agree that, with the changes, much less acrimonious divorce proceedings are anticipated. This should allow room for a more amicable end to a relationship breakdown which in turn should mean less conflict between spouses, ensuring a more supportive environment for the children of the family.

Although the date of 6th April 2022 is later than originally indicated, it is thought that the delay was intentional -permitting the HMCTS portal, which in its own right proved to be an excellent tool in the divorce process- to implement changes and updates.

Key proposals the Government seeks to propose are:

  • Irretrievable breakdown of marriage to be a sole requirement, replacing the condition to evidence ‘five facts’
  • No more possibility to contest the divorce
  • Introduction of a joint application, alongside retaining the option to issue proceedings solely
  • Ensuring the application is written in plain English replacing words like ‘Decree Nisi’ with conditional order and ‘Decree Absolute’ with final order
  • Minimum timeframe of six months from issuing the petition to final the final divorce stage, with the intended 20 weeks from petition stage to Decree Nisi stage and six weeks from Decree Nisi to Decree Absolute

The current law has been criticised as dated and problematic, for example by requiring parties to describe the others’ unreasonable behaviour where there may simply not be any. What happens if spouses fall out of love with one another and decide to go their separate ways? Well, they have to wait two years and both agree to the divorce.

This very much awaited reform appears to be a breath of fresh air in the current divorce process. A relationship breakdown is usually regarded as a difficult time in couples’ lives in any event. Starting the divorce process by describing why the other party is to blame can prove unhelpful, damaging and simply unnecessary. Especially when only rarely will the court consider parties’ behaviour during the financial proceedings or arrangements for the children, deeming conduct irrelevant for the most parts.

Although there are many positive aspects of the proposed new law, the Law Society indicates that there is still room for some improvement. Namely, the divorce fee of £593 is thought too high, discriminating against those who do not qualify for public funding, yet find themselves earning the national minimum wage.

Moreover, it was stated that the period of reflection should be as long as three months rather than six. And finally, the Law Society suggests if financial proceedings have been issued, no application for a Decree Absolute should be granted until those proceedings are finalised.

Article by Marta Udoh