Blame game up?

After a rocky road, punctuated by the prime minister’s unlawful prorogation of parliament and the December general election, the new government has now confirmed that the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill are to be reintroduced.


The Divorce Bill is intended to reduce family conflict by making significant changes to the legal process for spouses to obtain a divorce, civil partners to dissolve their civil partnership, or for a judicial separation.

Government says the new law will remove the prevailing ‘blame game’. Neither spouse will be required to blame the other for faults in the marriage to secure a divorce, instead, either or both parties can make a statement of irretrievable breakdown. This effectively paves the way for a joint petition/application for divorce if the couple’s decision is mutual.

The new laws will also stop one partner contesting a divorce if the other wants one. The ability to contest a divorce has, in some cases, allowed domestic abusers to exercise further coercive control over their victim. It is intended that the statement of irretrievable breakdown will be “conclusive evidence” that the marriage has irretrievably broken down.

That said, government has confirmed that most divorce applications may still be contested on the bases of jurisdiction, legal validity of the marriage, fraud or coercion and procedural compliance.

All couples will also have to wait at least six months before getting a divorce (as opposed to the current ‘quickie’ of six weeks). This will allow greater opportunity for couples to agree practical arrangements for the future where reconciliation is not possible and divorce is inevitable.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland MP said: “The institution of marriage will always be vitally important, but we must never allow a situation where our laws exacerbate conflict and harm a child’s upbringing.”

Campaigners for change to the divorce laws which requires the apportionment of blame, have frequently drawn attention to the case of Tini Owens, which reached the Supreme Court in July 2018. Mrs Owens failed to convince the courts to allow her a divorce after her husband defended it. The courts agreed with Mr Owens that the examples given of his behaviour were insufficient to satisfy the test that he had behaved in such a way that the petitioner cannot reasonably be expected to live with him.

Baroness Hale of Richmond handed down the Supreme Court ruling and said: “It is not for us to change the law laid down by parliament — our role is only to interpret and apply the law that parliament has given us.”

Lord Wilson of Culworth commented that while the family court recognises that, unless and until repealed by parliament, section 1 of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 must conscientiously be applied, “it takes no satisfaction when obliged to rule that a marriage which has broken down must nevertheless continue in being”.

“The question for parliament” he said, “and for all of us who comprise its electorate, is whether, when judged by its effect in this case, the law which still governs entitlement to divorce remains satisfactory.”

So the proposed divorce law reforms are back on the table - and lawyers and campaigners pleased. Joanna Farrands, partner at Barlow Robbins, says: “Naturally there had been concerns that the divorce process would become “too easy”, however the bill provides a good compromise; delivering reform without undermining the institution of marriage.

“The end result will have a far-reaching impact on couples seeking divorce as it will enable joint applications and more collaboration and co-operation from the outset. This should help prevent early acrimony and make amicable divorces more common, reducing family conflict which inevitably has a significant impact on the children.”

Resolution was also pleased at news of the reintroduction of the draft legislation and said government should be “commended” for recognising the importance of this legislation and the impact its swift passage will have on separating couples.

Nigel Shepherd is a long-time campaigner for change in the laws and a former chair of Resolution. Resolution members, he says, have been calling for reform for more than 30 years: “For far too long, far too many couples have been effectively forced to assign fault during the divorce process in order to satisfy outdated requirements. The current system encourages separating couples to engage in a ‘blame game,’ and is entirely at odds with the non-confrontational approach Resolution members take under our Code of Practice.

“It’s high time this changed, and with this legislation, our antiquated divorce laws will be brought up to date – helping divorcing couples and, most importantly, any children they may have, avoid unnecessary conflict.

We hope this legislation – which has support from politicians from all parties, professionals, the public and senior members of the judiciary – will now be passed without further delay and that we can finally end the blame game for good.”

However, not all campaigners want to see the law changed. The Coalition for Marriage has, for example, called the Divorce Bill a "marriage wrecker's charter" that reduces the opportunity for reconciliation. Concern has also been expressed at the lack of scrutiny.

Domestic abuse

The reintroduction of the Domestic Abuse Bill is also widely welcomed. It sets out significant proposals to improve the protection of victims and their children from the perpetrators and support for them through a number of measures, including:

  • proposals to pilot integrated domestic abuse courts; establish a domestic abuse commissioner
  • a statutory definition of domestic abuse, which will extend to emotional, coercive or controlling, and economic abuse.
  • New police powers to impose domestic abuse protection notices and domestic abuse protection orders; and
  • perpetrators of abuse will be prohibited from cross-examining their victims in person in the family courts

Law Society president Simon Davis said: “Together the Domestic Abuse Bill and new divorce legislation have the power to change millions of lives across England and Wales,” said Simon Davis.

“We welcome the news that these important issues will be addressed in the new parliamentary session and look forward to working with the government on these vital pieces of legislation.”



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