Divorce rate drop highlights need for cohabitation law reform, say family lawyers

30 Aug 2007

Figures published today by the Office for National Statistics show provisional divorce rates in England and Wales in 2006 at their lowest for 22 years.

The figures show a drop in divorces to 12.2 per thousand married men and women, a fall of 7% compared to the 2005 figure of 13.1 per thousand.

According to family law group, Resolution, the figures highlight several key issues:

1. The need for cohabitation law reform
“The downward trend in divorce rates mirrors falling marriage rates, which are currently at an all-time low and can be attributed - at least in part - to the growing number of people who are choosing to live together and not marry.

“The number of cohabiting couples in the UK is expected to rise from 2 million to 3.8 million by 2030, and at present six out of ten cohabiting couples believe they have the same rights as married people on separation.

“The reality is very different. The present law provides no protection for couples that live together.

“The uncertainty and lack of clarity cohabiting couples face means increased insecurity and distress at the time of break up, as well as injustice and high legal costs if couples go to court to resolve their differences. The costs involved in sorting out property rights of cohabiting couples can often exceed those of a fully contested divorce - precisely because there is so little clarity.

“Resolution welcomed the recent Law Commission proposals for reforming cohabitation law, and we are now pressing the government to move forward and introduce new legislation without delay.”

2. The case for a ‘no fault’ divorce system
“Today’s ONS figures refer to husbands’ ‘behaviour’ being cited in 54% of divorce cases and wives in 32% of cases.

“This highlights the current fault-based divorce system, which we are keen to move away from. Currently, to divorce, couples need to give a reason for the marriage split. Often they cite “unreasonable behaviour” or adultery to speed up the process, but this can lead to bitter battles. In so many cases, it is impossible to say who is most to blame when a relationship ends.

“We would like to see a no-fault system, which gives couples the chance to look forward, rather than back, and agree best how to co-parent the children and how fairly to sort out the finances.”

3. The importance of putting children first
“The figures show that whilst divorce rates are falling, there are still 125,000 children caught up this difficult and highly emotional process.

“It’s vital that separating parents put children first. They may no longer be part of a couple, but they will always be a parent.

“Alternative methods of dispute resolution, such as mediation and collaborative law are becoming more and more popular. Through collaborative law, couples and their respective lawyers sign an agreement to reach solutions together without going to court.

“Resolution members aim to minimise the pain of separation and divorce and we are keen to explore options where couples can sit down with their own solicitors, all together in the same room, to work out resolutions, face-to-face.

“This makes for a more civilised divorce process, giving couples and families a better chance of rebuilding their lives.”

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Note to editors
Resolution is 5,000-strong group of family lawyers committed to promoting a non-confrontational atmosphere in which family law matters are dealt with in a sensitive, constructive and cost-effective way. It sets high standards of good practice in family law and runs an accreditation scheme for specialist family lawyers.