High-profile break-ups like the separation of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie after 12 years together throw the subject of divorce into the news spotlight again.
Even if you have a multi-million dollar estate to be divided up and a family of six children to be looked after, you could be forgiven for believing that divorce is simple and straightforward. After all, don’t we have “no fault” divorces?
While the concept of “no fault” does exist in most American states, the situation is very different on this side of the Atlantic. And the whole process is ripe for reform, according to leading Plymouth solicitor Annemarie Richardson, a partner at Curtis Whiteford Crocker specialising in divorce and cohabitation cases.
“People think ‘no fault’ divorce exists. It does, but only after two years. People are surprised when I tell them and they question the advice I’m giving them. I feel really sorry for them,” says Annemarie.
The process of getting a divorce in this country is based on a system that offers “fairly antiquated” grounds, she says.
“When the marriage has irretrievably broken down, you have five grounds for divorce but they don’t really fit in with the way we live today. If you’ve got children, you want to put them first so it’s not helpful that, in order to divorce, one parent has to ‘blame’ the other.
“This approach doesn’t really fit in with the way we live today.”
There are five grounds which form the basis of the irreconcilable differences needed to divorce. The first is adultery, although the legal definition of sex is that it is between a man and a woman. So if your partner leaves you for someone of the same sex that in itself is no ground for divorce.
You could petition on the basis of “unreasonable behaviour” which includes excessive drinking and drug-taking but also refusal to pay housekeeping.
Unreasonable behaviour is also a completely subjective test. What is “unreasonable” in one marriage might be the norm in another.
If your partner walks out, you could claim desertion after two years. If they won’t agree to a divorce, you could be granted one after you have lived apart for five years.
Even if husband and wife agree, amicably, to divorce they must still have lived apart for two years before they can proceed.
“The Matrimonial Causes Act was created in 1973. I was born in 1974, so it hasn’t altered in my lifetime,” says Annemarie. “You’re not telling me that family life hasn’t changed – today we also have Civil Partnerships and gay marriage. It really is time for a change.
“I might have a couple come along who want a divorce and they haven’t met anyone else. They might have met really young at school, got married, had children and just grown apart. They don’t want the same things and they don’t want to be married.
“If they don’t want to wait two years to divorce on the grounds of separation with consent, then one of them has to say a lot of stuff about the other, when they haven’t really done anything. When you write these things down they sound bad and then the other half objects and you end up with a contested divorce. That can prove massively expensive, with proceedings held in open court.
“It’s ripe for change. There has to be an option for people who mutually agree to divorce and don’t want a slagging off session in court, which is bad for the whole family. There’s no dignity in it.”
And a financial settlement must also wait until divorce.
“You have to wait two years for a divorce which means you can’t have a financial settlement,” says Annemarie. “That’s the main issue. Then the divorce takes between six and nine months because of changes in the system. All South West divorces go to the Southampton centre. People think it’s going to take six weeks, but the wait is much longer.”
Annemarie is a member of Resolution, an organisation of 6,500 family lawyers and other professionals in England and Wales, who believe in a constructive, non-confrontational approach to family law matters. Resolution also campaigns for improvements to the family justice system.
Resolution believes that it is time for the law to move on to allow people to break up with dignity without a two-year wait. They carried out research last year which revealed that 52% of divorce petitions were fault-based alleging either unreasonable behaviour or adultery and that 27% of divorcing couples who asserted blame in their divorce petition admitted the allegation of fault wasn’t true, but was the easiest option.
A No Fault Divorce Bill by Richard Bacon MP has faltered on its progress through the Commons. The Norfolk MP believes new legislation would end a lot of the mud-slinging in modern divorce.
“It’s time we moved on. There has to be a better solution,” says Annemarie. “I want to try and get people to divorce with dignity. I do a lot of mediation; it’s so much better than going to court and it’s better to come out with a negotiated settlement. Once you go into court, you have no control. People expect it to be more ‘touchy feely’ but it is more stodgy and formal. And when you tell people that it’s going to take six to nine months even after two years separation, they nearly fall off their chair.”