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BLOG: Government divorce proposals undermine marriage

Marriage and Family
6 December 2018
Marriage 3

With Brexit dominating the news agenda, it may seem as if the current debate about the Withdrawal Agreement is the Government’s sole focus. But below the radar, the Government is currently also planning a radical overhaul of current divorce law in England and Wales. The changes being proposed would constitute the biggest shake up of divorce law in 50 years.

The Government are proposing to remove the current reasons people have to provide for divorce and replacing them with a ‘notification process’. This would mean that one spouse would be able to unilaterally end their marriage whenever they wanted by notifying the court and, after a short period of time, receive the final divorce decree. This amounts to ‘no reason’ divorce.

The Government’s consultation and impact assessment has paid no attention to the likely effect of the proposals on the institution of marriage and how marriage is perceived in wider society. These proposals will undermine marriage when the Government should be doing everything their power to support married couples and encourage more people to get married.

By removing the requirement to give a reason for divorce these proposals will gut the marriage contract of any expectation that it is lifelong. This new ethic of marriage is highly individualistic and takes no account of the duties and responsibilities that marriage confers. This only reinforces assumptions that relationships breakdown is inevitable.

Current divorce law, conversely, has a purpose in setting out ideals about marriage. Namely that it is an enduring commitment for life that centres around family and children and there must be serious and compelling reasons for why what was hoped to be a lifelong union has to come to an end. As Lord Farmer’s recently argued,

“Marriage on the other hand is a solemn vow, an explicit statement of commitment until death. Saying it’s no one’s fault when one or both parties fail to live up to the promises made, empties those promises of all meaning. Instead of saying, ‘I take you, as my husband or wife, ‘til death us to part’, under no-fault divorce couples will in effect be saying ‘I take you until we part, whenever we part for whatever reason that might be.”

If there is no expectation that marriage is lifelong this could lead to an increase in marriages of lower quality, thereby resulting in increased family breakdown. One academic has argued that in the United States ‘No fault divorce changed the assumptions that people make before marriage. Knowing that it is easier to dissolve a marriage may lead people to enter marriages that they would not have considered when dissolution was more difficult, resulting in an additional number of fragile marriages and eventually an increase in the divorce rate.’[1]

The Government has argued that the current divorce process does not establish why the marriage broken down and that the stated reasons people divorce are not truly reflective of why people divorce. Yet the Nuffield Foundation’s report ‘Finding Fault’, heavily relied up on by the Government, found that the stated reason for divorce ‘very closely’ or ‘fairly closely’ reflected the real reason for 91% of petitioners and 58% of respondents. It would seem then, that the current divorce laws on the whole do reflect the reasons people get divorced.

All this brings into question the Government’s repeated claim that they are committed to families and marriage. If they were committed to marriage, they would seek to support families and marriages through marriage support, mediation and counselling. If they were committed to families, they would be doing all they could to prevent married couples from ever getting to the point of ‘irretrievable breakdown’.

Children need safe, stable and nurturing relationships to thrive. Instead of moving forward thoughtlessly with proposals that will undermine marriage, the Government should prioritise strengthening and stabilising marriages and families.

By Jonathan Williams, Family Policy Officer at CARE

[1] Maley, Barry. (2003) Divorce Law and the Future of Marriage. The Centre for Independent Studies, Pg. 12

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