How has UK divorce law changed over time?


In its earliest form, the only way to successfully divorce in England and Wales was by private Act of Parliament which was hugely costly and only open to the very richest in the country. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was the first to permit ordinary people to divorce through an application to the court. Nevertheless, the only grounds for divorce were proven adultery, and the burden of proof was tougher for women, who had to also demonstrate aggravating grounds. Since its inception in the mid-1800s, divorce cases have been heard in court with both parties represented by a divorce lawyer or family law solicitor.

Addition of irretrievable breakdown

Adultery was the only ground for divorce until 1937 when drunkenness, insanity and desertion were added as permissible grounds. The largest change came in 1969 when the Divorce Reform Act changed the sole grounds for divorce to an irretrievable breakdown in the marriage. The Act and subsequent cases defined the five reasons for this which remain in place today. Adultery and unreasonable behaviour are the two reasons for a divorce which do not require a period of separation. Desertion requires the respondent to have left without agreement for more than two years.

No-fault divorce

Where parties have been living separately it became possible to apply for divorce without demonstrating fault. A divorce could be granted where the parties have been living separately for two years or more so long as they agreed on the divorce. Where they do not agree, the court could grant a divorce after five years' separation.

Changes to proceedings made in the 1970s allowed the court to approve the petition after a brief overview of the paperwork in cases where the petition was not defended. This special procedure allows divorce to be conducted quickly and at less cost and is the route for almost all divorces today.

Latest changes

More recent changes have seen the adjustment of financial awards to recognise the contribution of stay-at-home partners to the family as equal to that of the partner who works to earn money for the family. In another recent case, the Supreme Court in England ruled to recognise the legal status of a divorce-lawyer-prepared pre-nuptial agreement to limit the sum of money one party was entitled to receive from their considerably wealthy partner.

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