Finding Fault

In categories: Divorce, Research

A research project, Finding Fault, led by Professor Liz Trinder of Exeter University and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has just published some interim findings. The aim of the research is to explore how the current law on divorce and civil partnership dissolution operates and to inform debate about whether and how the law might be reformed. Among other questions, the study asks whether the contents of the divorce petition, particularly fault-­based petitions, truly reflect the real reasons for the breakdown of the relationship and also what impact the process has on relationships.

The key interim findings are that:

  • The majority of divorces are based on ‘fault’, i.e blaming one spouse for the marriage breakdown.
  • Using fault (adultery or behaviour) means the divorce can take as little as 3 months, instead of a wait of at least 2 years.
  • Divorce petitions are not necessarily accurate records of who or what caused the breakdown of the marriage. Petitions can be based on compromise statements designed to minimise conflict and upset, or can be just one person’s view of what went wrong with the marriage.
  • The court cannot test whether allegations are true or not and petitions are taken at face value. ‘Rebuttals’ written on the form by respondents are ignored unless the respondent files a formal ‘Answer’ (with £245 fee) to defend the petition.
  • The threshold for behaviour petitions appears to be lower than 30 years ago. Very few petitions appear to be rejected on substantive legal grounds, whether ‘true’ or not.
  • Allegations of fault can create or exacerbate conflict. This can affect negotiations about children or finances where the law expects parties to work together.

The interim report concludes:

‘In reality, we already have divorce by consent or ‘on demand’, but masked by an often painful, and sometimes destructive, legal ritual with no obvious benefits for the parties or the state. There is no evidence so far from this study that the current law does anything to protect marriage. The divorce process is currently being digitised. This is a timely opportunity for law reform so that divorce is based solely on irretrievable breakdown after notification by one or both spouses.’
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