Divorce statistics

What the latest divorce statistics really tell us

Posted by
James Harbottle
Read more

What the latest divorce statistics really tell us

Lauren Preedy - Senior Associate Solicitor - Head of Divorce and Relationships Team
Lauren Preedy – Senior Associate Solicitor – Head of Divorce and Relationships Team

On the first of February the Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) published its latest annual statistics for divorces in England and Wales, for the year 2020. The statistics have already attracted much comment. But what are the real conclusions, if any, that we can draw from them?


Fewer divorces

The main headline from the latest divorce statistics is that there was a 4.5% decrease in the number of divorces in 2020.

In that year there were 103,592 divorces granted, down from 108,421 in 2019. Of these, 98.9% (102,438) were among opposite-sex couples, although the number of divorces among same-sex couples actually increased, by 40.4% from 2019.

On the other hand, the number of opposite-sex divorces decreased by 4.8%, going down to 102,438, from 107,599 in 2019.

The decrease in the number of divorces has been seized upon in certain sections of the media, with some commentators speculating that it was due to couples ‘sticking together’ during the pandemic.

This, they suggest, could mean that we are likely to see a significant surge in the number of divorces once the pandemic is over, particularly as being forced to spend much more time at home together may have strained many relationships to breaking point.

But can we draw such a conclusion from the figures?

latest divorce statistics

In fact, the ONS themselves give an indication of what may actually be behind the decrease in divorces. They say:

“The Ministry of Justice has reported that family court activity was affected by the coronavirus pandemic during 2020 and also resulted in some courts temporarily suspending operations for a period of time. This may have impacted both the number and timelines of the divorces granted during 2020. However, it is difficult to know the precise impact of the pandemic on divorce applications and proceedings or to attribute this to the number of divorces granted in 2020.”

So it may not be anything to do with fewer people deciding to divorce during the pandemic, but simply because of the courts being able to process fewer divorces, because of the effect of the pandemic upon them. If so, then any subsequent increase may have already happened, as the figures for 2021 (when the pandemic was of course still with us) may reveal.

As the ONS says, it is difficult to know the precise impact of the pandemic upon divorce applications, and it may yet be shown that it did mean that more couples in broken marriages ‘stuck together’, but it is too soon to reach any conclusion upon this, and it is certainly premature to suggest that there will be any post-pandemic divorce surge.


What else do the latest divorce statistics say?Parental alienation divorce

Apart from the number of divorces, the statistics do also say some other interesting things about divorce in 2020.

First of all they tell us that the majority of opposite-sex divorces were granted to wives (63,928 against 38,257). This is no surprise – in modern times wives have always been the predominant instigator of divorces, in recent years by a factor of about three to two, although at times by more than two to one.

Then we have the ‘fact proven’ on divorce (adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, two years’ separation with consent and five years’ separation). Again, there was nothing new here, with unreasonable behaviour divorces being the most common, followed by divorces granted on the basis of two years’ separation and consent. Of course, all of this will soon be academic, with the introduction of no-fault divorces later this year.

Lastly, and perhaps of more interest, there are the figures relating to marriage duration. For opposite-sex couples the average duration of marriage at the time of divorce was 11.9 years, a decrease from 12.4 years in 2019. For same-sex couples the average duration of marriage at the time of divorce was 4.7 years for female couples and 5.4 years for male couples (divorces among same-sex couples have of course only been possible since 2015, following the introduction of same-sex marriage in March 2014).

legal 500 leading firm logo

Award winning