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What’s behind the plummeting divorce rate?

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Walker Family Law
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On the 22nd of February the Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’) published its latest annual figures for divorce rate in England and Wales, for the year 2022.

The statistics showed that the number of divorces granted in England and Wales plummeted to the lowest number since 1971.

In 2022, there were 80,057 divorces granted in England and Wales. (There were 74,437 in 1971, which was when the divorce laws in England and Wales were liberalised, resulting in a significant subsequent increase in the number of divorces).

The 2022 divorce rates were a 29.5% decrease compared with 2021, when there were 113,505 divorces, although the ONS point out that the higher divorce rates in 2021 may partially reflect delays in the number and timing of divorces granted during 2020 because of disruption in family court activity during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2022, divorce rates were 6.7 for men and 6.6 for women per 1,000 married individuals. These are the lowest rates since 1971, when the rates for both men and women were 5.9 per 1,000 of the married population

So what is behind the plummeting divorce rate?

Fewer marriages?

The first thing to point out is that it is not due to fewer people being married, despite the fact that in December the ONS published figures that showed that the proportion of people aged 16 or older in England and Wales who are married or in a civil partnership had fallen below 50% for the first time.

Whilst that is true, and whilst there are certainly more people who have never married, the same figures showed that the actual number of people in England and Wales who are married has remained about the same for the last twenty years.

Clearly, more married people are choosing not to divorce, or at least delaying getting divorced.

Cost of living?

Some speculate that the cost of living crisis is causing many to delay divorce proceedings.

Indeed, even before the divorce rate figures were published the financial services business Legal & General published research indicating that financial pressures had delayed some 19% of divorces

The cost of living crisis exacerbates the serious economic consequences of divorce.

Higher interest rates, for example, will have made it more difficult for divorcing couples to purchase new homes.

Higher inflation makes sharing expenses in one household more appealing than maintaining two separate households for couples.

Indeed, we’ll ascertain the impact of the cost of living crisis if divorce rates increase when the economic situation improves.

No fault divorce to blame?

There was, of course, a very important change in the divorce laws in England and Wales in 2022.

On the 6th of April 2022 a new system of no-fault divorce was introduced.

The ONS notes that the number of divorces in 2022 may be influenced by the introduction of a new system, including mandatory waiting periods.

Those changes meant that a divorce under the new system would take a minimum of six months, whereas it was possible that a divorce under the old system could have been completed in less than that.

Obviously, no new divorces under the new system could have been completed until October 2022, at the very earliest.

Dire predictions for no-fault divorce unfounded?

Setting aside reasons for the decline, early figures suggest concerns about a significant increase in divorces due to no-fault divorce may be unfounded.

Back in 2017, for example, the Coalition for Marriage warned that the introduction of no-fault divorce would trivialise marriage and “cause the loss of 10,000 marriages a year by making the divorce process an administrative formality”.

As mentioned above no-fault divorce was only introduced in April 2022 and we will clearly have to wait for the 2023 figures to give a fuller picture, but the 2022 figures obviously show no sign that no-fault divorce has led to an immediate increase in the number of divorces.

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