I can’t really believe that this week marks the one year anniversary of the introduction of “no fault” divorce and “no fault” dissolution of civil partnerships. This time last year we were all waiting with bated breath to see if the long called for changes would help those couples and families going through divorce/dissolution, do so in a more amicable way by taking away the need for blame to be apportioned between them for the breakdown of their relationship.
So, has no fault divorce had the impact everyone hoped?
From my own experience over the last year, I have certainly spent far less time having to talk with clients about the reasons that have brought them to the point of seeing me. This has been hugely refreshing for both me and my clients, who generally seem much keener to draw a line under what has happened and focus on how best to move forward.
There has also been a shift towards this future focused approached in much of the correspondence I have received from other legal professionals. Not least as our initial correspondence no longer needs to focus on the reasons behind a relationship breakdown, which was often not agreed, as this detail is no longer needed for the divorce/dissolution documents.
This shift has meant that in most cases there is a much more positive and constructive starting point from which couples begin discussions about their finances or the arrangements for their children.
I have also seen that the act of the couple themselves (or one of them) dealing with the online portal and starting their divorce/dissolution application has provided clients with a greater sense of ownership over their separation and the process. The impact of this should not be underestimated, as it has helped many to realise the strength they have to deal with not only the practical matters but also the emotional turmoil that comes from relationship breakdown.
That being said, the no fault system is not without its downsides. It is consistently taking longer for couples to finalise their divorces/dissolutions. The no fault system introduced a minimum timeframe of 6 months for divorce/dissolution but in my experience I am seeing this timeframe being more like 9-12 months at best. Whilst a greater level of Court resources has been allocated to dealing with these matters, there is a limit to what an already overstretched Court service can process at any one time.
Perhaps more fundamentally, however, I have also seen a rise in the numbers of people who simply do not appreciate that the no fault divorce/dissolution process is now entirely separate from dealing with financial matters. Whilst the move away from the traditional Latin inspired terminology of divorce (with Decree Nisi becoming Conditional Order and Decree Absolute becoming Final Order) has helped make that process more easily understood, it is questionable whether use of the terminology “Final Order” provides couples with an inaccurate reassurance that once they have obtained this, that is it, and there is nothing further that is required.
This could not be further from the truth, as without also getting an Order dealing with your financial matters (which can be done by agreement), there is always the possibility that one person could come back, potentially in many years to come and make financial claims. Indeed, as the landmark case of Wyatt v Vince established in 2015, even the fact that years (or as was the case for Ms Wyatt and Mr Vince, decades!) have passed since a separation did not stop a person from being able to make financial claims. The ability to do this is not time barred.
Therefore, the only way to protect yourself from having to constantly look over your shoulder is to ensure that an Order of the Court is made about financial matters when you separate. There are already proposals to reform the no fault divorce/dissolution system to highlight the need for couples to do this, but we will have to wait and see if and when these proposals are adopted.
So, was the change to no fault divorce/dissolution worth it?
On balance, yes. It has definitely helped to refocus couples and those working within the profession to support them, on the future and finding the best ways to move forward rather than focusing on the past and seeking some form of recompense for past wrongs.
I sincerely hope that this change and positive moves we have seen as a result in the last 12 months, is simply the start of many changes that are needed within the family justice system to put couples and their children at the heart of everything that is done, in a way that encourages collaboration and a focus on the future.
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If you would like any advice about divorce, dissolution of a civil partnership, or separation, or you would like to understand more about no fault divorce, then do not hesitate to get in touch with our highly experienced family law team. We are dedicated to resolving matters as amicably as possible and every solicitor in our family team are members of Resolution which means we have a duty to reduce conflict wherever possible.