Is 455 divorce petitions in a week a lot?

Divorce|January 8th 2019

It was widely reported the other day that, according to the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’), 455 people made an online divorce application in the period between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day, with 13 applying on Christmas Day itself. The figure of 455 sounds quite shocking (as I suspect the newspaper headline writers meant it to be), but is it actually a lot?

To answer the question we need to look at a few more figures from the MoJ.

According to the latest Family Court Statistics Quarterly, for July to September 2018, 115,392 divorce petitions were filed during the period October 2017 to September 2018, the most recent full year for which figures are available. If that figure is divided by 52 weeks, we find that during that year an average of some 2,220 divorce petitions were filed each week.

On that basis, the figure of 455 seems quite low, representing roughly a fifth of the number of petitions filed in an ‘average’ week.

Now, of course there is an obvious problem with this: many divorce petitions are still filed by post (solicitors do not yet have access to the online portal), and so we are not comparing like with like.

OK, so it would be better to look at the figures for online applications. The MoJ has stated that “more than 23,000 applications for divorce have been made online since the service was launched last April”. Now, my rough calculation is that that equates to an average of about 700 online divorce applications per week.

So even on that basis 455 is quite low, representing only about two-thirds of the number of online applications made in an average week.

I suppose it might be said that 455 is still high, considering that people are supposed to be doing other things during the Xmas/New Year holiday. On the other hand, it could be said that as many people were off work during that week, more would have had time to file a divorce application, and therefore one might expect more applications to be filed.

Whatever, I don’t think too much can be read into these figures. It was certainly not an exceptional week for people making online divorce applications, or even for people seeking a divorce at all.

And what of those thirteen people who decided to apply for a divorce on Christmas Day?

Well, I can see that it is quite sad to think of people filing for a divorce on a day when most of us are celebrating with our families. But then it is a sad fact that not everyone enjoys a happy Christmas. In fact, for those who don’t, Christmas can be the most depressing time of the year. Thirteen people applying for a divorce is actually a tiny figure when one considers, for example, how many people spend Christmas alone.

It is also a tiny figure by reference to that figure of 700 online divorce applications per week mentioned above, which obviously represents an average of 100 per day. If anything one would expect considerably more than thirteen divorce applications to have been made on Christmas Day.

Why does all of this matter? Well, it feeds into the narrative that more people seek a divorce at this time of year than at any other time – the ‘Divorce Day’ myth. Even The Guardian, a ‘serious’ newspaper, told us in its story about the figures that:

“The first full week of the new year is one of the busiest periods for initiating divorce proceedings, as unhappy couples, having failed to resolve their differences over Christmas, resort to specialist lawyers.”

Of course, the lawyers are not the ‘villains’ when it comes to people applying for a divorce without a lawyer and from the comfort of their own homes, but that is a point that is conveniently ignored. The fact, however, is that these figures do not demonstrate that we are presently witnessing an epidemic of people seeking a divorce. On the contrary, they are substantially less than usual and, I think, nothing out of the ordinary.

John Bolch often wonders how he ever became a family lawyer. He no longer practises, but has instead earned a reputation as one of the UK's best-known family law bloggers.

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