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Ten per cent fall in divorce rate driven by administrative backlog

90,871 divorces of opposite-sex couples in 2018

There were 90,871 divorces of opposite-sex couples in 2018, a decrease of 10.6 per cent compared with 2017 and the lowest number since 1971.

The figures are revealed in a statistical release from the Office for National Statistics.

The Ministry of Justice's Family Court Statistics Quarterly 2018 report indicates that as a result of divorce centres processing a backlog of work last year, divorce petitions increased by 8 per cent in 2018. This is more in line with the number of petitions seen prior to the low number in 2017. The 2018 backlog of work also resulted in a five-week increase to the average time taken from date of petition to decree absolute in 2018 (to 54.3 weeks). As a result, the number of completed divorces is likely to increase in 2019 compared with 2018.The ONS expect this to translate into a higher number of completed divorces in 2019.

The divorce rate among opposite-sex couples fell to 7.5 divorces per 1,000 married men and women from 8.4 in 2017, the lowest rate since 1971. The ONS says that this will also have been affected by the backlog of work in divorce centres in 2018.

The average duration of marriage among opposite-sex couples who divorced in 2018 was 12.5 years.

The number of divorces of same-sex couples has increased each year since the introduction of marriages of same-sex couples. There were 428 divorces of same-sex couples in 2018, increasing from 338 in 2017; of these, three-quarters were among female couples. Divorces among same-sex couples were first recorded in 2015 and annual increases have been seen each year since then, reflecting growth in the size of the same-sex married population in England and Wales.

Unreasonable behaviour was the most common reason for opposite-sex couples divorcing in 2018. It accounted for almost half (46.3 per cent) of all decrees absolute granted, with 51.9 per cent of wives and 36.8 per cent of husbands petitioning on this ground. It was also the most common reason for same-sex couples divorcing.

Two years separation with consent was the second most common ground for divorces granted in 2018 and accounted for more than one-quarter of divorces (26.8 per cent), while five years' separation without consent accounted for 16.1 per cent of divorces. Most of the remaining divorces were granted on grounds of adultery (10.1 per cent) and 0.8 per cent were for desertion and a combination of two or more grounds.

Zahra Pabani, family law partner at Irwin Mitchell, commented:

"There are two interesting aspects of the latest statistics on divorce: firstly they are not a true reflection of divorce in the UK; secondly they are symptomatic of the challenges family law faces at the moment.

"On the first point, no-fault divorce repeatedly being on and off the legislative table has left divorcing couples in limbo. I've had clients say to me, 'I'm not going to get divorced yet because I'm waiting for no-fault divorce to come in' – and clearly unhappy couples are biding their time for the divorce rate to be so low. Once no-fault divorce comes in, divorce rates will skyrocket just as they did in the 1970s when new legislation was introduced.

"The ONS itself notes that an administrative backlog is partly to blame for the drop and that rates will most likely be higher next year. The reality is that the courts have suffered through numerous funding cuts, and court employees are increasingly overworked and understaffed – delays are therefore inevitable and until this remedied, will likely skew future statistics."

For the full data, click here.

1/12/19 (supplemented 1/12/19)