At last, the end is nigh for decree nisi as we know it. But divorcing couples should still seek expert, bespoke advice when it comes to splitting the assets.
Quite remarkably, after years of campaigning, debate, and after falling through the House of Commons twice already in the last year, the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill is at last making its final sprint towards Royal Assent.
The Bill, which aims to end the 'blame game' by no longer requiring fault to be placed on either party, passed its final stage of the legislative process last week with amendments to the bill defeated by a huge 400 votes to 31 in the Common's committee debate.
It seems Covid-19 has poured new life into debate surrounding the bill with op-eds aplenty decrying the Bill as Boris Johnson's very own attempt to weaken the family unit. There are those who understandably argue that this is a time when we should be helping families stay together, rather than gifting them a golden ticket to decree absolute when the strain of lockdown feels too much to bear. Others worry that granting parties the power to divorce unilaterally undermines the commitment the institution of marriage itself is supposed to represent.
Notwithstanding these points, a civil and evolving society would do better than to use the fear of the stigma of divorce as a means of trapping unhappy couples in tumultuous relationships, especially in a national climate which saw domestic violence rates reach a five-year high before anybody had even heard of Covid-19, and which increased further still since the imposition of lockdown measures in March. Naz Shah MP raised similar concerns about the difficulty in extricating domestic violence victims from violent marriages in last week's committee debate, inviting opponents to the Bill to agree that, under the current law, 'abusive partners have the power to prolong cases for up to two years – in some cases, five years – which has a negative impact on both the abused partner and on the children'.
Given that Hong Kong saw an increase of 21% in divorce rates as it emerged from its 2004 SARS epidemic and with divorce lawyers across the globe already reporting increases in divorce enquiries since lockdown was enforced – ranging from 25% in China according to Bloomberg to 42% in the UK as reported by Co-Op Legal Services – it seems that unhappy people will continue to divorce regardless of what the Bill's opponents say. Surely, it must therefore be understood that locking these families into further acrimony serves nobody, least of all the children of divorcing parents. Parties need to be guided through the proceedings with stealthy confidence and sensitivity, not forced into costly mud-slinging and defensiveness.
As the Bill continues its charge towards Royal Assent, with Justice Secretary Robert Buckland stating that the Act will likely come into force in autumn 2021, focus must now be placed on its implementation to ensure parity and fairness between the divorcing parties is still maintained. Streamlining the divorce process means it is all the more important that anybody considering a divorce seeks robust advice to ensure all assets, especially pensions, are dealt with properly. In November 2019, the Chartered Insurance Institute called for pension sharing to be made the default position in divorce proceedings after family law court figures from the same year showed that only 13% of consent orders contained provision for a pension sharing agreement, leaving women particularly financially vulnerable when they come to retire. There are concerns that the current pandemic only exacerbates this risk and that vulnerable people could be hastened into 'DIY divorces' without taking proper advice on their financial assets or entitlements.
As such, in many ways the position remains the same. Divorcing couples must be allowed access to expert, bespoke advice when navigating proceedings that can underpin every facet of their daily lives, from their homes, to their businesses. It is hugely positive that we are moving away from entombing families in indefinite toxic turmoil, but progress must always be scrutinised and thoroughly enforced if we are to achieve its overall aims of allowing people to live free and independent lives, be they married, single, divorced, or somewhere in between.
This article was co-written by Fern Champion.