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Divorce rates at highest since 2014

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James Harbottle
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Divorce rates are at their highest since 2014

Lauren Preedy Partner and Solicitor and Head of Divorce and Relationships Team
Lauren Preedy – Senior Solicitor – Head of Divorce Team

The Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) has published its latest annual bulletin containing figures for divorces in England and Wales, for 2021.

The figures show a significant rise in the number of divorces, both in opposite-sex couples and same-sex couples.

We look a little deeper at the figures, and offer a few thoughts about what may be behind them.

More divorces, higher divorce rates

The ONS say that in 2021 there were 111,934 opposite-sex divorces. This is an increase of 9.3% from 2020, and is the highest number seen since 2013, when there were 114,720 divorces.

As to the party issuing the divorce proceedings, the proportions issued by husbands and wives remain about the same, with 36.9% issued by husbands and 63.1% issued by wives.

Turning to same-sex divorces, there were 1,571 in 2021, which is an increase of 36.1% compared with 1,154 same-sex divorces in 2020. Of these divorces in 2021, 67.2% were female couples, which was slightly lower than the proportion in 2020 (71.3%).

It should be noted however that figures relating to same-sex divorces may not yet be settled, as same-sex divorce has only been possible since 2015, same-sex marriage having been introduced the year before.Do I have to go to court to get divorced?

As to the divorce rates, the rate for opposite-sex and same-sex couples combined was 9.3 for men and 9.4 for women per 1,000 of the married population. These are the highest rates since 2014, when the rates for both men and women were 9.3 per 1,000 of the married population (obviously opposite-sex only).

So why are the rates up?

The first thing to note is that the rates were lower during 2020, due to the effect of the pandemic – this may have led some couples to delay their divorce for a year, leading to more divorces in 2021.

However, that does not tell the whole story: divorce rates have been increasing since 2018, when they stood at 7.6 per 1,000 of the married population for both men and women.

Perhaps it was just that the rates in 2018 were ‘unnaturally’ low, due to a backlog of divorce petitions then being processed by the Ministry of Justice.

There may also be something of a cyclical ‘bounce’. Rates had been dropping for the previous 14 years, and perhaps there is only so far they can go!

More marriages ending in divorceNo-fault divorce

The bulletin also contains some interesting figures regarding the number of marriages ending in divorce, and the length of marriages.

We are told that the cumulative percentages of marriages ending in divorce by their 25th wedding anniversary has increased over time. For couples who married in 1963 (the first cohort for which data is available), 23% had divorced by their 25th anniversary. This has steadily risen to 41% for couples who married in 1996 (the latest marriage cohort to potentially reach their 25th anniversary).

But if one looks at how many marriages ended in divorce by their 10th wedding anniversary, the figures have actually gone down recently. It increased from 10% of couples who married in 1965 to 25% of couples who married in 1995, but has since gone down to 18% of couples who married in 2011.

Marriages lasting longer

Finally, as to the duration of marriages, this has also recently increased slightly.

For opposite-sex divorces in 2021, the median duration of marriage at divorce (i.e. the mid-point of all durations) was 12.3 years. This was an increase compared with 11.9 years in 2020, but slightly below the highest value for the median, which was 12.5 years in 2018 (the lowest recorded median duration was in 1985 with 8.9 years).

On the other hand, the most common duration of marriage for opposite-sex couples getting divorced in 2021 was 8 years, with 6,229 divorces. Perhaps the ‘seven year itch’ should be the ‘eight year itch’?

The figures relating to duration of same-sex marriages are obviously affected by the short time that same-sex divorces have been possible. In 2021, the median duration of marriage was 5.9 years for male same-sex couples and 5.1 years for female same-sex couples.

All in all the figures send out somewhat mixed messages as to the ‘popularity’ of divorce. Perhaps a clearer picture may emerge next year when the effects of the pandemic have worn off, although we will then also see the effect, if any, of the introduction of no-fault divorce this year.