Headline divorce rates in the UK have not changed since the 1970s, according to the Marriage Foundation, which is calling for reform of the laws on marriage and divorce to update legislation nearly 50 years old.
The Matrimonial Causes Act came into force in the 1970s and, say the campaigners, is no longer a good fit for modern society.
Fewer people are getting married, households are less stable and more couples are cohabiting, but the lifetime risk of divorce remains at around 38% – a fall since the peak of the 1980s-90s, but still close to the 1975 rate.
One of the possible ways to modernise divorce is through the introduction of true ‘no fault divorce’ into UK law, as was suggested in Parliament in 1996 but never implemented.
The Marriage Foundation states: “There is no reason at all why the 1996 legislation should not be the starting template for reform.”
“It is miles better than what we currently have,” the campaign adds. “In particular it encouraged careful thought and decision-making/planning before taking the life-changing step of proceeding through to divorce.”
The campaign also raises the question of what happens after divorce – which is based on Royal Commission analysis dating back to the 1950s and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.
At that time it was normal for the female in the relationship to expect lifelong financial support from her former husband after separation, but now of course more marriages are dual income, have the woman as the main breadwinner, or concern same-sex couples.
This raises the question of whether it is appropriate for either party – and especially women who do not fit the mid-2oth century ‘housewife’ stereotype – to expect what the Marriage Foundation calls “a meal ticket for life”.
Finally there are the non-standard approaches to long-term relationships, ranging from marriages governed by a prenuptial agreement, to couples who cohabit and potentially have children together without getting married.
Although judges have made individual decisions on issues relating to these situations over the years, the Marriage Foundation says it is time for a full Parliamentary consideration to avoid “creeping recognition” of prenups as an opt-out to the usual prevailing laws on marriage.
Together, all of these issues highlight the complexity of both marriage and divorce – and why even a prenuptial agreement or amicable separation cannot always overcome those obstacles.
Until major reform is achieved and the legal landscape surrounding separation is simplified, mediators are here to help all involved parties understand the issues as they apply under present-day law, and help drive discussions towards a mutually agreeable outcome, ideally without relying on the opinion of a judge in the divorce courts.