N E Law solicitor says divorce laws not fit for purpose

N E Law partners (from left) Janet Potts, Chris Noon and Michelle Coulson

A Durham solicitor says a growing campaign to change the divorce laws in England and Wales is a “once in a generation” opportunity.

On Wednesday (30 November) more than 150 Family Law professionals will be lobbying MPs to call for the introduction of a so-called no fault divorce.

It is allowed in Scotland but the implementation in England and Wales, proposed by the Blair government in 1996, was shelved after a major media campaign claimed that a quicker divorce process would undermine family life.

Chris Noon, a partner with Framwellgate Moor-based family law specialists N E Law, said: “Divorce is an extremely stressful experience.  People fall out of love – that’s life – but the current law forces couples into the blame game or a wait of at least two years.  It’s time legislation moved with the times.”

In England and Wales divorce is permitted if a marriage has irretrievably broken down on one of five facts: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, abandonment, two years’ separation with consent and – where there is no consent – five years’ separation.

There are more than 100,000 divorces a year.  On average, adultery and unreasonable behaviour are the grounds for two thirds of them. The supporters of no fault divorce believe it should replace unreasonable behaviour.

Resolution, an influential Family Law organisation which is leading the campaign for change, says that the reason for a divorce is almost invariably irrelevant to the real issues that need to be addressed, namely – above all else – the children as well as the financial consequences.

It argues that it is in the interests of divorcing couples, their children and wider society to resolve these issues as amicably as possible.

However, under the current process blame is raised in a large number of divorces whether or not couples wanted to apportion blame.

“Divorce is such a horrible, horrible thing.  If the marriage is over and you’ve just fallen out of love with each other, you’re in effect forced to come up with reasons why the marriage should end.  You can, of course, both agree that the marriage is finished – but you have to wait two years,” said Mr Noon.

In a no-fault divorce there would still be checks and balances, he added.  Resolution is arguing, firstly, that a divorce should be finalised where one or both of the parties give notice of their decision – which is supported by information and with the opportunity to explore other avenues – that the marriage has broken down. Secondly, one or both of them are still of that view after six months.

“This would end the current situation where couples don’t want to wait for two years and so opt for whichever is the least worst option – unreasonable behaviour or adultery – so they can move on with their lives,” said Mr Noon.

“Waiting two years for confirmation of the separation can cause serious financial hardship and inconvenience. People want to get on with life and start afresh rather than being tied to one another for at least another two years.

He added: “Limiting the pain in divorce is crucial to future relationships – especially for parents who need to co-operate for the sake of their children. Blame increases tension and can infect the future relationship to everybody’s detriment.”

And he added: ““To me this all suggests the law is not fit for purpose and the current impetus to change it offers a once in a generation opportunity which must not be overlooked. At NE Law we try to make divorce as painless as possible and we strongly believe in Resolution’s Code of Practice.”

He said he is encouraged by some evidence of political sympathy for the change as well as the arrival of Nigel Shepherd as the new head of Resolution.

In an interview with the Solicitors Journal Mr Shepherd said: “There really is no logical, legal, or social reason for not introducing it.”

The lobby at Parliament, organised by Resolution, is part of a broad campaign for reform during Good Divorce Week.

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