A consultation on introducing “no-fault divorces”, which could streamline the slow and confrontational procedures couples face when separating, is being prepared by the government.
The justice secretary, David Gauke, who has previously acknowledged that the argument for reform is “strong”, is expected to launch a public debate on proposals to modernise legislation that has not been changed for almost 50 years.
Under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 in England and Wales, anyone seeking a divorce must either prove their partner is at fault through adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour, or , alternatively, if both sides agree, they can part after two years of separation. In the absence of consent or evidence of fault, applicants must wait until they have been living apart for five years.
Demands for change have mounted after the Tini Owens case. The Supreme Court ruled in July that the 68-year-old could not divorce her husband and escape her loveless marriage until a period of five years had elapsed. She and her husband, Hugh Owens, had been living separate lives since 2015.
The Ministry of Justice would not comment on the development, which was first reported by BuzzFeed, but it is understood that a consultation will be published in the coming months.
This year, Gauke told the Times he was “increasingly persuaded … that what we have at the moment creates more antagonism than we really need”. He added: “I don’t think the best way of helping the institution of marriage is by putting bureaucratic hurdles in the way of a divorce.”
Richard Burgon, the shadow justice secretary, said on Friday: “Labour is fully committed to introducing no-fault divorce proceedings. Instead of yet another consultation, the Conservatives should get on with changing our divorce laws so that they are fit for the 21st century.”
There has been growing pressure from campaign groups and divorce lawyers who have been pressing for the system to be modernised. They argue that the current adversarial system forces couples to blame one another if they wish to speed up divorce.
Responding to reports that the government intended to launch a consultation, Nigel Shepherd, a former chair of the family law organisation Resolution, said: “Today’s news has the potential to be a landmark moment for divorce law in England and Wales. For far too long, couples have been forced into needless acrimony and conflict in order to satisfy an outdated legal requirement.
“Apportioning blame can lead to long-term damage to relationships between children and their parents, and can undermine attempts to resolve matters outside of an already overstretched court system.
“Since 1996, there have been 1.7 million people who have assigned blame in the divorce process. Many didn’t have to, and every day that goes by sees that number grow.
“The government appears to have heeded our calls to make our divorce system fit for the modern age, and we will continue to push for this much-needed, overdue reform to be implemented as soon as possible.”
Christina Blacklaws, the president of the Law Society, said: “Making couples attribute fault in order to end their marriage can escalate the differences between them in an already charged situation. We welcome news the Ministry of Justice is to consult on proposals to update the divorce law.
“It’s time to bring this law into the 21st century to reflect the society we live in and we look forward to working with government to ensure the reforms are fit for purpose.”
Fiona Snowdon, a family law expert at Simpson Millar, said: “Divorce can be a painful, drawn out experience. A no-fault divorce would inject some much needed autonomy and practicality into the process. Most recently, Tini Owens found herself trapped in a ‘loveless marriage’ until 2020 thanks to the unnecessary antagonism of grounds for divorce in the UK.”
Claire Blakemore, a solicitor with the law firm Withers LLP, said: “This consultation signals a hugely welcome change to our divorce law. Our clients are often totally unable to understand why they must apportion blame and make their separation more acrimonious. Bringing divorce law up to date to meet the needs of modern families is essential.”