Demand for divorce advice rises significantly during lockdown

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The beginning of the school year is widely regarded as one of the points in the year when petitions for divorce increase. This autumn has seen the peak reach a higher point than usual and the large number of couples seeking support is being caused by the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown, according to divorce professionals.

Data from the Citizens Advice charity shows a 25% upturn in searches for advice on divorce during the first weekend in September, compared with the figures for same weekend last year. This trend has continued with divorce ranking above search terms such as benefits and redundancy which topped the list earlier in the pandemic.

Even in a ‘normal’ year, the summer holidays mean that families spend more time than usual in each other’s company and this can prove to be the tipping point for those in already unstable relationships. The lockdown which has dominated 2020 appears to have accentuated this effect, with little opportunity to take a break from a difficult domestic situation. In an already difficult year, the challenges faced by couples experiencing problems within their relationship are likely to have been that much greater.

However, as the impact of the pandemic continues to play out, it’s important to emphasise that support and advice is still available if you are considering separation or divorce. When children are involved, it’s particularly important to try to adopt a positive co-operative approach.

While it will not help those looking to divorce this year, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 was passed in July which means that the prospect of obtaining a no-fault divorce without a period of separation is now on the horizon.

This marks the biggest change in divorce law since the Divorce Reform Act 1969. In recent years, the two-year separation rule has come under criticism as being out of touch with social attitudes, and too slow for couples who want to move on but depend on the financial settlement that comes with divorce. In such circumstances, couples have been more likely to cite unreasonable behaviour or adultery to get a speedier outcome, leading to calls for an end to the blame culture that it perpetuated.

Under the new legal structure, it will be enough to cite that the relationship has broken down and indeed couples will be allowed to make a joint application if they wish, rather than one party having to set the process in motion. The new rules are expected to come into effect in autumn 2021 and parties to a divorce will no longer be able to challenge divorce simply because they do not wish it to happen.

However, new requirements for a minimum period of 20 weeks from the date of the divorce petition through to the Conditional Divorce Order, which is the equivalent of the Decree Nisi stage, will be introduced. Following that period, couples will have to wait a further six weeks before they can apply for the Final Divorce Order, which replaces what is currently known as the Decree Absolute.

Although this may seem to extend the timeframe when compared with today’s fault-based timeline, it often takes at least six months to finalise all the financial aspects on divorce and to reach agreement in any case, so this new requirement is unlikely to affect many couples.