The biggest change to divorce laws in the past 15 years took place on 6th April 2022 allowing married and civil partnership couples to obtain a divorce without having to ‘blame’ the other. Among the hopes for the new law were the benefits it would bring for victims of domestic abuse. Stowe Solicitor Harriet Donovan explains more.
Domestic abuse and divorce
It was claimed by Rights of Women, who assist women through the law, that the previous divorce law was “not fit for purpose”. Previously, in order to divorce you had to wait for a period of two or five years before a divorce could be granted. The only other option was to site grounds of unreasonable behaviour or adultery, fault-based facts which often led to increased hostility between the parties and risk of further abuse, especially when couples continued to live together. This protracted divorce process gave perpetrators additional time and avenues to continue to control their partner.
Research therefore highlighted that the fault-based system created barriers to divorce that trapped victims of domestic abuse in unsafe and unhappy marriages, and caused them to stay for longer than they would have if there been an alternative way to divorce.
Low income divorce
It was also believed that the previous fault-based divorce law was discriminatory against women, particularly those on low incomes who often don’t have the means to leave their partner, and had a disproportionately negative effect on women who had experienced domestic abuse.
It was quoted within the Law Commission 1990 report “a young mother with children living in a council house is obliged to rely on fault whether or not she wants to do so and irrespective of the damage it may do”, a statement still applicable before no-fault divorce was introduced. It was clear from this report that a large proportion of the population could be negatively affected by the old laws, especially those that were unable to leave the family home due to being on a low income and therefore having to remain living with their perpetrator during the proceedings. Unfortunately, it is a common fact that divorce only increases tension and hostility between parties for those going through the proceedings.
When using the ground of unreasonable behaviour in a fault-based petition, petitioners had to give the reasons for the breakdown of the marriage. Victims of domestic abuse would have to choose whether or not to state the abuse as a ‘reason’ for divorce knowing that voicing this could risk their safety.
If they did decide to use abuse as their grounds for divorce, perpetrators previously had the opportunity to contest and defend the divorce, resulting in the victim having to attend court to face their abuser and share their personal experiences, placing immense and unnecessary pressure on them. To avoid the trauma of court, a significant amount of domestic abuse victims would accept facts about themselves that were untrue, to speed the divorce up and escape their abuser at the earliest opportunity.
For these reasons the divorce petition itself was rarely used as a form of evidence in any other types of proceedings. However, a system that required victims of domestic abuse to accept divorce petitions based on false allegations of their unreasonable behaviour for fear of retaliation from their abuser, was unethical.
Removing the outdated divorce law
It was expected that the introduction of no-fault divorce in April 2022 would benefit victims of domestic abuse by removing the legal requirement to evidence their justification for divorce against outdated and arbitrary criteria, as well as removing the right for respondents to contest a divorce.
No-fault divorce has brought a welcome end to the ‘blame game’ lowering the overall impact of divorce by enabling victims of domestic abuse to file for divorce simply because they believe that their marriage has broken down, without the need for lengthy separation periods, airing painful details, and without the fear that their divorce may be contested.
Research suggests that these reforms have already made a difference to victims of domestic abuse, with it being reported that there has been a decrease of 8% to 16% in wives’ suicide rates and a 30% decline in domestic violence. It is hoped that these figures will continue to decline.
Family Law Advice
If you are in an unhappy or abusive relationship and would like advice on your legal situation, please do contact our Client Care Team to speak to one of our specialist lawyers.
Other Helpful Contacts
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
The Mix, free information and support for under 25s in the UK – 0808 808 4994
National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline – 0800 999 5428
Samaritans (24/7 service) – 116 123