No-Fault Divorce Is Freeing Unhappy Married Couples And Victims Of Abuse

Previously, you had to live apart for five years if you couldn't prove blame.
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From Wednesday, no-fault divorce legislation will be brought in, meaning couples who wish to separate no longer need to give a reason for their parting.

Previously, you could only obtain a divorce if both parties were agreeable, but in the case of one side wanting it and the other refusing, there were a few citable reasons.

Until this week in England and Wales, these included adultery, unreasonable behaviour or abandonment, or living apart for five years if you wanted a divorce without the other’s agreement.

The moment comes as a huge win to campaigners who had been advocating the change for years.

It was called an “important milestone” by the person whose case sparked it all - Tini Owens, a woman who failed to persuade Supreme Court judges that her “loveless” 40-year marriage should end.

“No-one should have to remain in a loveless marriage or endure a long, drawn out and expensive court battle to end it,” she told the Independent. “This change in the law guards against that happening and I welcome it.”

Sarah Ingram, partner at Winckworth Sherwood law firm, described the law change as a “welcome step in the modernisation of divorce”. She told HuffPost UK it will help couples to reach swifter financial agreements and “will help to keep private details out of court hearings”.

The change doesn’t just mean less messy divorces, it’s also a lifeline for women trying to escape an abusive marriage.

Nina, a teacher from London, 31, who had to navigate a difficult divorce that her abusive partner refused to give, says the policy will make a big difference.

“A no-fault reason is good because it gives you more option, so if you’re with a partner and they’re a narcissist, for example, you couldn’t cite that down as an adequate reason before but now (even if it pains you), you can use a no-fault separation to leave a person who makes you unhappy and is refusing to grant you a divorce,” she tells us.

Nina does have some concerns about this area though. “I have questions about this including how you would divide assets in this case. People trying to leave a marriage might be giving up their hard-earned wealth, in favour of a divorce being granted,” she says.

“Also, it means people get away with things. For example, if I had no option but to divorce my ex on a no-fault basis then it also absolves him of guilt.”

Such concerns will need to be considered by those seeking no-fault divorce, but Sophie Francis-Cansfield, policy and public affairs manager at Women’s Aid, still thinks the legislation is a game-changer.

“We welcome the new legislation surrounding ‘no-fault’ divorces, as we know that up until now, the divorce process presented major barriers for women attempting to leave their marriage from an abuser which often put survivors and their children at risk of harm,” she says.

Francis-Cansfield points out the flaws in the old system, including the living apart rule as many victims are financially dependent on partners.

“Our research showed a ‘fault-based’ system made it harder for survivors to request a divorce, as they felt highly fearful of the perpetrator’s reaction to reporting abuse as a reason for divorce. Living separately, the alternative in divorce proceedings, was also not an option financially for survivors, with economic abuse a frequent tactic used by perpetrators. This left women with little choice but to stay in unsafe environments.

“We know the most dangerous time for a survivor is when she leaves her perpetrator, so we must ensure as much is done within the justice system and wider specialist services to support women and their children leaving abuse and finding safety.”

The reform doesn’t mean that we’ll see divorces handed out instantly now, as people will still need to go through a 20-week waiting period plus a further six weeks to kickstart proceedings. Altogether, most couples will have to wait about six months for their divorce to finalise. This time is intended to be a period of reflection for both parties to consider whether they truly want to separate.

According to law firm Crisp & Co, under this clause, dividing assets is also a little different. During this time, couples need to make separate arrangements to divide their finances, agree to maintenance payments (if necessary), sort out child residence/contact, and agree on an ongoing parenting plan.

*Some names have been changed.

Help and support:

If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call 999 and ask for the police. If you are not in immediate danger, you can contact:

  • The Freephone 24 hour National Domestic Violence Helpline, run by Refuge: 0808 2000 247
  • In Scotland, contact Scotland’s 24 hour Domestic Abuse and Forced Marriage Helpline: 0800 027 1234
  • In Northern Ireland, contact the 24 hour Domestic & Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 802 1414
  • In Wales, contact the 24 hour Life Fear Free Helpline on 0808 80 10 800.
  • National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline: 0800 999 5428
  • Men’s Advice Line: 0808 801 0327
  • Respect helpline (for anyone worried about their own behaviour): 0808 802 0321

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