I have a guilty secret to divulge….I quite enjoy watching ‘Say Yes To The Dress’. There, I’ve said it. This is a TV programme originating in the US (where else?) in which we see brides-to-be going to a wedding dress shop with their ‘entourage’ – family and friends, in plain English – to try on dresses and hopefully find ‘The One’. Cue tears, rows, sighs, busted budgets and stand-offs between mothers, daughters, aunties, in-laws and assorted hangers-on. Sitting in your own living room with a cup of tea is the only safe space from which to watch the shenanigans.
This had me thinking recently about weddings in general. Our parish church, usually Wedding Central during spring and summer, has been bereft of confetti for most of this year. We did finally get one couple married at the third attempt in early October, but sadly with the bare minimum of attendees.
Still, this enforced minimisation of the festivities may actually not be A Bad Thing. It was good to see a royal wedding in July with the minimum of fuss, yet radiating just as much joy – perhaps more, as it could not be eclipsed by the usual bling and conspicuous consumption – as a ‘normal’ one. Princess Beatrice’s low-key wedding, with only a handful of photographs released, showed how it can be done stylishly without all the fuss and expense. Looking back, of course, ‘low-key’ is pretty much what our own grandparents’ weddings were in the past – a short ceremony, a modest reception for family and friends, some photos and a going-away outfit. Whatever happened to quick weddings – which usually resulted in long marriages?
So while we’re on the subject, it may surprise, if not dismay you to hear that not only has this summer seen the return of quick weddings, but it has also heralded the arrival of The Really Quick Divorce. Not only that, mind. Even better than simply being The Really Quick Divorce, summer 2020 saw the arrival in the UK of The Really Quick No-Fault and No-Contest Divorce.
“Really? I must have missed that…”
Well, dear reader, I suspect that was the point. While the entire country was worrying itself silly over Covid-19, the progress of Brexit negotiations and how to devise entertaining no-travel summer holidays for the kids in the back garden, Parliament quietly passed the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act (2020). Royal Assent was given and the Act is expected to come into force in late 2021.
Under this Act, divorce can still be initiated by one partner only.
“Well isn’t that just how it’s always been?”
Er, not quite….because guess what? Under the new Act, the initiating partner no longer needs to give a reason for wanting a divorce. All he or she has to do is to state ‘that the marriage has broken down irretrievably’ and the court must ‘take the statement to be conclusive evidence that the marriage has broken down irretrievably’, and make a divorce order in six months or less.
Yes, you read that correctly. It is now the law here that A can divorce B within six months or less, against B’s wishes, without even having to show what has led to the assumed irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. Simply making a statement to the court that your marriage has irretrievably broken down is going to be sufficient ‘evidence’ to acquire a divorce once the Act comes into force. Once you have done this, you can expect your divorce in 26 or so weeks. Pilot schemes held already in various places around the country have shown in practice this can be reduced to as little as 12 weeks. Yes – 12 weeks in which to dissolve ’til death us do part’.
This has, of course, been dressed up as a caring development:
New laws to spare divorcing couples having to apportion blame for the breakdown of their marriage took a step closer this week, as a Bill seeking to reduce family conflict gained Royal Assent. Currently, one spouse has to make accusations about the other’s conduct, such as ‘unreasonable behaviour’ or adultery, or otherwise face years of separation before a divorce can be granted – regardless of whether a couple has made a mutual decision to separate.
“The new laws will instead allow a spouse, or a couple, to apply for divorce by making a statement of irretrievable breakdown. This aims to end the needless “blame game” between couples and parents”.
The authors of these comments on the government website clearly fudge the issue of no-fault divorce, as we have had this, in effect, for years, with the two- and five-year separation options. The changes have been made simply in order to speed this up. Why?
This disaster for society has not come about due to public demand, as many commentators seem to have suggested. During consultations prior to the legislation being debated, 80% of respondents did not wish to see no-fault divorce enabled. Rather, it seems to have been pushed by lobbyists and lawyers (can’t you just hear those legal-eagle cash registers ringing?).
The Ministry of Justice website shows the paperwork from the consultation (below). The ‘five facts’ refers to the ‘old’ five reasons to cite for a divorce including adultery, unreasonable behaviour and so on:
It is interesting to read the MoJ’s explanation of the uncomfortable fact that 80% of respondents did not agree with the no-fault divorce proposal. They write this off as the result of campaigns by those opposed to the changes – conveniently avoiding the fact that the consultation allowed the pro-change public to vote just as well as the anti-change public. The mealy-mouthed wording above is clear in its disapproval of the outcome.
So to put it bluntly, a loyal, hard-working and loving wife may wake up one day after the latest disagreement or row, only to find that hubby has decided off his own bat that the marriage has run its course (for which read, he can’t get his own way as much as he likes) and has gone off to Messrs Brutall & Wrangle to make his statement. Or perhaps a caring, hard-working husband has come home from the match one Saturday afternoon (those were the days) to find that wifey has been listening to her best mate Colleen about how ‘she wouldn’t put up wiv it” and has been persuaded to do likewise. Of course, little Jo-Aimee, Connor, Poppy and Kayden (probably Felix, Hattie and Rufus too) are left in limbo as one of their parents decides to single-handedly demolish the family unit.
We already know that divorce has massive implications for those involved, most important of whom are the children. Mental health problems, psychological problems, learning issues, physical health problems and behavioural problems are rife among many broken families. And underpinning these is often a sense of insecurity, anxiety and depression and/or anger arising largely from the break-up of the family. Schools see all of this on a daily basis. Social workers are overwhelmed with it all and the forces of law and order have to deal with the fallout all the time.
The costs to the welfare state are huge. Rent, food, clothing and all the rest of it have to be provided for those who have been left high and dry by a departing spouse who does not intend to pay for his or her responsibilities. Families help where they can, but not all are able to do so.
The emotional effects of divorce on the lone parent left raising the children are huge (I should know). Even when the divorce is relatively amicable, this arises. Children are shuttled between homes and then have to learn how to live with Mum or Dad’s new partner(s) whether they want this to happen or not. Yes, some people manage to negotiate all this quite well, but many do not. Were the cost outcomes to the tax payer properly assessed as part of the consultation prior to the law change?
As well as the financial costs to the welfare state, we are faced daily with a big push in the media about improving our mental health. Rightly so. Yet at the same time, our Parliament has enacted legislation that provides a mechanism with which to destroy family life quickly and more easily than has hitherto been the case. In the face of massive evidence of the social damage caused by family breakup. What on earth were our MPs thinking?
Nobody can argue that there are, sadly, many cases where divorce is the best option. I myself am divorced. But the difference is that I – and many others like me in the past – only took the divorce route once all else had failed. I ‘stuck it out’ for years before I took the ultimate step. I still had to prove unreasonable behaviour on the part of my ex-husband in order to be granted a divorce. This was a massive upheaval for me on religious, economic and social grounds. My children, who were both very young at the time, were also deeply affected. For me, divorce was the lesser of two evils, not a delightful solution to an ongoing problem. I recognise that not all divorce applications are spur-of-the-moment events, but I do believe that many of today’s divorces could still be avoided if the parties were supported to improve their marriages more effectively. When children are involved, this is surely imperative.
Anyone who is married knows that there are many times when you want to wring your partner’s neck or lock him or her in the shed for a week. A degree of conflict is part of all human relationships. Of course, I am not condoning violence, coercion or other forms of abuse here. I’m talking about the ‘normal’ disagreements, the human weaknesses and day to day difficulties of life. We were not promised a bed of roses. Back in the day, our parents and grandparents, like their forebears before them, worked hard to keep the family on track in the face of these difficulties. Economically, divorce was not an option unless you had a way to survive after it. Society also shamed divorcees – which was awful for those who should not have been shamed. But the prospect of social shame or economic hardships did, no doubt, keep many inside marriages that went on to work adequately or well. If children are involved, it can never be the case that a quick divorce will solve all their problems, unless we are talking about abuse of them or the innocent party among their parents.
The ‘old’ divorce law in the UK allowed for no-fault petitions already. This was achieved by taking the two- or five-year separation routes if blame was not to be apportioned. These provisions allowed time to pass – time that could facilitate mediation, discussion, thinking time and planning time. Many people in the past changed their minds about divorce once things calmed down a bit and time passed. Plus, of course, one partner was still able to contest a divorce if they did not wish to be divorced. While one could argue that such a contestation would be ill-advised if the other partner has already hit the exit button, is it such a good idea to remove a fairly considerable length of time in which to possibly work things out?
Even in the controversial case of Owens vs Owens (2016-18) in which a husband successfully defended against a petition for divorce by his wife, the existing law allows for his wife to apply again in due course for a divorce based on a five-year separation. Under the new law, even that option is removed from the table.
Difficult cases have been used as examples to ‘prove’ the need for quick and easy divorce. But this misses the point. Marriage is a serious thing. As the old prayer book says, ‘it should not be entered into lightly’. It is a massive commitment – and apart from the commitment to raising children, it is the biggest commitment one person can make to another. It is also a commitment to wider society. Two adults commit to each other and to society, in that they are forming a household from which they will contribute to the social and economic life of society. This household is supposed to be responsible for raising any children that may come along and to raise them in turn to be responsible, healthy and capable members of that society. Given that marriage is such a big venture, why should it be easy to walk away from it unless in the most dangerous or harmful situations?
So what is the practical outcome of this change in the law? Well, it is this: by changing the nature of divorce, we are actually changing the nature of marriage. Yes, while divorce has been available to many for a long time, it has remained a sufficiently daunting process to make many people consider whether it is worth the pain rather than trying to fix things, at least in the first instance.
What does it say then for the nature of marriage, with all the associated implications for society, if one can enter a marriage with the knowledge that if it doesn’t all go your way whenever you like, you can just go and tell a solicitor that you think it has broken down and Bob’s your uncle in six months or less? No need for mediation, reasons or time to consider further. It’s quick, it’s cheap, it’s easy. Yet society needs marriages to support it in good working condition.
To paraphrase a well-known comment of many years ago, it takes longer to close down a whelk stall. We already know all the statistically-demonstrated problems of cohabitation on children; must we further undermine the stability of those who do take the plunge into responsibility and make the commitment of marriage?
It is also claimed by those apparently in the know that this state of affairs is not going to lead to a rise in divorce cases. Really? How do they work that one out? Make something easier to acquire and its use is bound to go up. Especially as there is a welfare state just waiting to pick up the bills. Let’s look at the evidence.
When the Divorce Law Reform 1969 came into force in 1971 in Britain, the number of divorces doubled in just two years, from 58,239 in 1970 to 119,025 in 1972. By 1980 there were 148,301 divorces in a year – a 150 per cent increase in a decade. The divorces per thousand of the married population went from 4.7 to 12 over the same period. We also know that no-fault divorce laws introduced in the US and in part of Europe led to significant rises in divorce rates. In 2006 a study focusing on Europe said divorce law reform was responsible for about 20 percent of the increase in divorce rates in Europe between 1960 and 2002.
So what is different this time around? Anyone got any idea why we won’t see the rate of divorces (per the number of marriages) go up soon? A cynic may say that the government and lobbyists are purposely undermining marriage. After all, what is the point of getting married at all if you know that your spouse can decide, unilaterally, to end it all by making a statement to a solicitor and getting out of his/her responsibilities to you in around 26 weeks? Doesn’t do much to make you feel secure in your marriage, does it?
This makes a mockery of the seriousness of marriage. Yet the government cites Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP as saying:
The institution of marriage will always be upheld, but when divorce cannot be avoided the law should not exacerbate conflict and harm a child’s upbringing.
By sparing them the need to play the “blame game”, we are removing the antagonism that this creates so families can better move on with their lives.
The ‘blame game reduction’ excuse is thin, to say the least. Marriage is supposed to be a lifelong commitment. Yes, it can go wrong. But there is a difference between complete breakdown and the throw-away attitude so many seem to display today. We need society to continue to value and promote lifelong marriage as a norm. Not as a disposable asset. People tend to forget that marriage is a social, public contract. This is why marriage ceremonies require witnesses – so they cannot be carried out in secret or denied in the future. Marriage is one of the key foundations of western society, along with law and order, freedom of religion and so on.
We only need to look at what happened in the Soviet Union to see the social effects of anti-marriage policies and social views. In 1918 the early authorities in Russia changed the law to allow no-fault divorce; divorces went up. In 1926 they allowed divorce to be granted in as little as 3 days. By 1927, divorce rates had increased by 70% on the year. The ensuing social disasters arising from family breakdown resulted in the Soviet Union returning to marriage by the 1940s and 50s. Do we want to see such further erosion of marriage here?
So there we are, folks. From next autumn, you will be able to exit your marriage in around 26 weeks or less, without having to provide a reason. You may be chucked on the reject pile yourself without recourse to time allowances or the opportunity to dissent, in an effort to save your ‘lifelong’ commitment. In the UK, marriage is now to be considered as just another form of relationship – easily discarded in favour of a new one as and when you feel the need. The fact that marriage has, until now, been a bedrock of western Judeo-Christian society appears to have been lost among the voices shrieking for change.
Given that 80% of those consulted prior to this legislation said they were not in favour of no-fault divorce, one has to ask – just who is behind all this? And what is next on their agenda?