The campaign for Divorce Reform: An end to the blame game

Laura Sinclair


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September 10, 2018

Categories Family Law

It has now been over a month since the Supreme Court handed down its much anticipated judgement in Owens v Owens [2018] on 25 July 2018. By way of reminder – if at all needed – the facts of the case were as follows…

  • The parties married in 1978 and separated in February 2015. In May 2015, Mrs Owens filed for divorce based on Mr Owens’ unreasonable behaviour, which she argued meant she could not reasonably be expected to live with him within the meaning of s. 1(2)(b) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973.
  • Mrs Owens gave examples of incidents which included occasions where Mr Owens was alleged to have made disparaging or hurtful remarks to her in front of third parties. Mr Owens defended the case and argued at trial that the examples given of his behaviour were not such as to satisfy the requirements of s. 1(2)(b).
  • The original Judge who heard the case found the marriage had broken down, but that Mrs Owens’ examples of unreasonable behaviour were ‘flimsy and exaggerated’ and as such, dismissed Mrs Owens petition.
  • The Court of Appeal subsequently dismissed Mrs Owens’ appeal.
  • The Supreme Court has now also unanimously dismissed Mrs Owens’ appeal, commenting that although the case was ‘very troubling’, ‘it was not for judges to “change the law” ’.

…So when, or will, Parliament ever decide to introduce “no fault” divorce?

Resolution, who intervened in the case in support of Mrs Owens, has long been campaigning on divorce law reform and after the judgment, former Chair, Nigel Shephard said:

“Whilst the Supreme Court has, reluctantly, applied the law correctly, the fact that they have done so confirms there is now a divorce crisis in England Wales, and the government needs to take urgent action to address it. It should not be for any husband or wife to ‘prove’ blame as the law requires many to do – this is archaic, creates needless conflict and has to change.”

Since the last failed attempt to provide a no-fault divorce option in 1996 approximately 1.7 million people have been compelled to apportion to blame in divorce proceedings. The problem is that to get divorced, couples are legally required to assign blame for the relationship breakdown, unless they have lived apart for at least two years.

As family lawyers, we want to try to find the most amicable and most sensible way forward for couples in already distressing and painful scenarios, and starting off blaming each other for the breakdown of marriage works completely against this – not to mention the impact it can have on any children involved in the separation and the knock-on effect on trying to resolve financial matters by agreement wherever possible.

Resolution has called on government and politicians from all parties to support proposed legislation to review the current law. Resolution proposes a divorce procedure where one or both partners can give notice that the marriage has broken down irretrievably. The divorce can then proceed and after six months if one or both parties would still like to proceed the divorce is finalised.

Many countries around the world already allow for divorce without blame, including Australia, the USA and Spain. The Supreme Court’s decision in Owens v Owens, whereby Mrs Owens is now forced to remain unhappily married until 2020 when she can rely on the ground of five years’ separation without Mr Owens’ consent, has highlighted the urgent need for reform of the law in this country as well.

In support of Resolution’s current Chair, Margaret Heathcote, “Ministers need to end the blame game and they need to end it now.”