The divorce rate for opposite sex couples in England and Wales has plunged to its lowest level for almost half a century – partly due to problems in processing applications.
There were 90,871 divorces of heterosexual partners in 2018 – a drop of 10.6% compared with the previous year and the lowest number since 1971, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The divorce rate fell to 7.5 per 1,000 married men and women from 8.4 in the previous year. Divorcing couples were married for an average of 12-and-a-half years, according to the figures.
The drop “partly reflects the overall trend seen in recent years”, the ONS said, but was also more pronounced because 8% more divorce petitions were processed last year as a backlog of cases from 2017 were dealt with.
The main reason for the long-term decline in divorce is the lower rate of marriage as more couples opt to cohabit without going through a wedding ceremony.
The number of divorces among same-sex couples, however, increased by more than a quarter last year, rising from 338 in 2017 to 428 in 2018.
Unreasonable behaviour, which can include infidelity, was cited as the most common reason in all divorces last year. Some 51.9% of wives and 36.8% of husbands petitioned for divorce on these grounds.
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 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.
The government has repeatedly promised to introduce “no fault” divorce through legislation. The divorce, dissolution and separation bill made its way through several stages in the Commons and Lords earlier this year but was lost when parliament was dissolved in the autumn.
Of splits among sex-sex couples, three-quarters (75%) were among lesbian partners – a similar proportion to the previous year. Divorces among same-sex couples have been recorded since marriage laws changed in 2014.
The ONS said: “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.”
The figures are calculated using information from courts during divorce proceedings and also look at annulments.
They do not include married couples who separate but do not divorce or dissolutions of civil partnerships, which are recorded in different data.
Commenting on the latest figures, Joanna Farrands, a family specialist at the law firm Barlow Robbins, said: “Behaviour continues to be the most used fact for proving a marriage has irretrievably broken down, no doubt because if you wish to proceed with a divorce immediately you must cite either behaviour or adultery. This once again emphasises the need to reform the law as so many couples are forced to raise behaviours at the outset when it may be a mutual decision to end the divorce. No-fault divorce could not come soon enough.
“The reduction in divorces mirrors the reduction in marriages and the significant increase in cohabiting couples. Cohabiting couples have no protection on the breakdown of the relationship. The myth of the ‘common-law spouse’ remains in society at large.”