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Latest divorce statistics may not be as significant as they appear

Divorce statistics

The Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) has published its latest statistical bulletin giving figures for divorces in England and Wales, for the year 2018. The bulletin sets out annual divorce numbers and rates, by the duration of the marriage, sex, age, previous marital status, to whom granted, and the reason given for the marriage breakdown (i.e. adultery, ‘unreasonable behaviour’, separation, etc.).

Headline figure

The headline figure in the bulletin is, on the face of it, quite striking: that the number of divorces of opposite-sex couples decreased to the lowest level since 1971. Wow. Or maybe not.

To give a little more detail, we are told that:

“The number of divorces of opposite-sex couples in England and Wales in 2018 decreased by 10.6% to 90,871, compared with 101,669 in 2017.”

Ten per cent in one year? Isn’t that what a statistician would call ‘statistically significant’?

It has certainly led to some rejoicing amongst the advocates of marriage. A headline in The Telegraph suggested that the decrease was due to the children of divorced parents seeing the light:

“Children of divorce are sticking at marriage”.

Hmm. And Harry Benson, Research Director for the Marriage Foundation, used the figure to have a dig at those social outcasts who choose to bring up children outside of wedlock.

“We are seeing ever greater stability within marriage and instability out of it”, he said.

And then he continued with the somewhat condescending:

“Those who do become lone parents need and deserve our support for the heroic work they do”, before coming to his point: “But stable families are the bedrock of our society.”


But could all of this be reading a little too much into the figures? Well, yes. It turns out that the real reason behind the drop in divorce numbers, or at least a big part of it, maybe a little more prosaic than children of divorce courageously sticking with troubled marriages, or the increasing stability of the noble institution of marriage.

If we return to the ONS bulletin and read on we find this:

“This decrease partly reflects the overall trend seen in recent years, but it can also be attributed to a particularly low number of divorce petitions processed in 2017, which then reached decree absolute in 2018.”

The bulletin goes on:

“The Ministry of Justice’s Family Court Statistics Quarterly 2018 report indicates that as a result of divorce centres processing a backlog of work last year, divorce petitions increased by 8% in 2018. This is more in line with the number of petitions seen prior to the low number in 2017. The 2018 backlog of work also resulted in a five-week increase to the average time taken from date of petition to decree absolute in 2018 (to 54.3 weeks). As a result, the number of completed divorces is likely to increase in 2019 compared with 2018.”

Ah, so it was due to nothing more than the inefficiency of our shiny new divorce centres. Well, I suppose that doesn’t make such good headlines.

OK, so what else does the bulletin tell us?

Well, there were a couple of things that were completely expected: that the number of same-sex divorces increased, and that ‘unreasonable behaviour’ was, as always, the most common reason for divorce (hopefully, we will soon have no-fault divorce, so this statistic will be a thing of the past).

Good news?

But perhaps the most interesting figures were for the percentages of marriages ending in divorce, and here there may be some real good news for the advocates of marriage.

We are told that the percentage of marriages ending in divorce generally increased for those marrying between the 1960s and the mid-1990s. For example, 22% of marriages that took place in 1965 had ended by their 20th wedding anniversary, and by 1995, this had increased to 38%.

However, the bulletin goes on, for those marrying since the mid-1990s, there is evidence of a decrease in the proportion of marriages ending in divorce. For example, whereas 11% and 25% of marriages that took place in 1995 had ended by their 5th and 10th anniversaries respectively, the latest figures indicate that only 6% of marriages that took place in 2013 had ended by their 5th anniversary and 19% of marriages that took place in 2008 had ended by their 10th anniversary.

You can find the statistical bulletin here.

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If you would like any advice on divorce or other family law issues please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist divorce lawyers here. 

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, with his content now supporting our divorce lawyers and child custody lawyers

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