Regular readers of The Times will know that for several months the newspaper has been running a campaign for the reform of the fault-based laws governing divorce. Under the banner Family Matters, The Times campaign is calling for an end for the need to allege fault or blame when entering divorce proceedings, claiming this causes unnecessary conflict and can have serious consequences for children’s mental health. The Times also calls for reform of maintenance awards and the so-called “meal ticket for life” following divorce settlements, plus statutory recognition for prenuptial agreements.
Unless they have been living apart for two years, currently for couples wishing to divorce one party must apportion blame to the other, usually in the form of adultery or unreasonable behaviour. In many cases this leads to unnecessary conflict and makes reaching mutually acceptable agreements much harder. A recent study of 11,000 families revealed that family break-ups were the biggest factor affecting children’s mental health, and caused unnecessary emotional and behavioural problems in children of divorcing parents.
The Times’ five-point plan for change
- Scrapping fault-based divorce laws, allowing divorce within a year where both sides agree, and two where they do not — as in Scotland.
- Ending the outdated “meal ticket for life” that can result from laws on splitting assets and awarding maintenance after divorce, except where hardship would be caused.
- Giving prenuptial contracts the force of statute. At present they are non-statutory, which leads to uncertainty and bitterness when marriages fail.
- Extending civil partnerships to heterosexuals so that they can have the same security as married couples. Civil partnerships are offered only to same-sex couples at present.
- Creating rights for long-term unmarried couples. This would remove injustices that occur when one partner is left without any right to financial award or maintenance if they break up, possibly after many years of living together.
Many senior judicial and parliamentary figures are backing The Times demands to update the law. Chairman of House of Commons justice committee, Bob Neill, said: “This campaign is very welcome. Our divorce laws are out of date and in need of reform. The concept of having to show fault is outmoded, makes the process needless, antagonistic and confrontational for the parties and their families, especially children. It also adds to cost and delay. It should be scrapped.”
Resolution, the body representing 6,500 family lawyers and other professionals, is also calling for changes. It’s Chairman, Nigel Shepherd, said: “It’s time to end the blame game…..These measures…would make an immeasurable difference to hundreds of thousands of people who face divorce and separation each year – as well as any children they may have”.
In one of his first public statements the newly-appointed Secretary of State for justice, David Gauke, has promised to look at the case for reforming the divorce laws. The MP for South-West Hertfordshire acknowledged the demands for change made by senior figures in the judiciary, as well as the strength of feelings among the public. However, he said that he would not “rush to a conclusion”.
Heidi Fleming at Bretherton Law comments that “Whilst there has been some judicial steer in case law of maintenance no longer being a meal ticket for life and term orders becoming more favourable, we are still some way off no fault divorce and legally binding pre nuptial agreements. Concerns over making divorce too easy to pursue, and binding parties to an agreement which could prejudice a party if circumstances change, appear to rate highly as reasons against such changes”.