Potted history of divorce in the UK

Karen Connor
Karen Connor

Published: March 28th, 2023

7 min read

In 1858 divorce law was introduced in England but divorce remained too expensive for most people until the 1920s. Before 1858 divorce in the modern sense, that both partners were free to re-marry, was rare. People instead found other ways to separate - through custom, the church courts, the common law courts, and Parliament.

In 1858 the handling of the legal process for divorce was transferred from the ecclesiastical courts to a newly established civil court, the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes. In 1873 responsibility was passed to a division of the new Supreme Court. All divorce suits took place in London, thus restricting divorce to wealthier couples.

Divorce did not really open up for all classes until the 1920s with the extension of legal aid and the provision of some local facilities. In 1922, ten assize courts were named as suitable for the hearing of certain kinds of divorce and in the years to follow the number of courts hearing divorce cases expanded significantly. In the late 1960s divorce was taken over by the county courts and most divorces took place at county courts until 2014 which saw the introduction of a new single Family Court in England and Wales, which dealt with the vast majority of family cases. Bury St Edmunds Court was chosen as the single Court to deal with Divorce Petitions.

Prior to April 2022, to divorce your spouse, there had to be grounds for divorce - which was the marriage breaking down. This also needed to be supported by at least one of five reasons: adultery, unreasonable behaviour, desertion, two years of separation (with consent from both parties), or five years of separation (which did not require consent).

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2022 reformed divorce law and removed the concept of fault.

  • There were 33,566 divorce applications in April 2022 to June 2022, with the majority under the new no-fault divorce legislation and from sole applicants, according to data from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
  • The number of applications was the highest since the first quarter of 2012 - more than a decade ago - and is up 22% from the same period in 2021.
  • Of the applications between April and June, the vast majority (33,234) were made under the new law.

The law change also introduced a new minimum period of 20 weeks, for "meaningful" reflection, between starting proceedings and applying for a conditional order.

Before the no-fault divorce law was introduced, unless adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion could be proven, applicants had to live separately from their spouse for five years in order to get divorced.

Under the old divorce law, there were 19,758 decree absolutes (final orders) granted in April to June, down 35% from the same quarter in 2021.

For those divorcing under the old law, there was a rise in the average time of proceedings.

  • The average time from date of petition to receive a Decree Nisi (conditional order) was 36 weeks, up 12 weeks from the same period in 2021.
  • And the average period from date of petition to Decree Absolute was 56 weeks, up seven weeks from the equivalent quarter in 2021.

The MoJ said the increased time frames had been impacted by resourcing issues which had led to backlogs.

No-fault divorce allows couples to obtain a divorce without the need to outline the bad behaviour of their spouse or prove fault. This can make the process of obtaining a divorce simpler and less contentious, as the parties do not have to engage in any legal battles to prove who is at fault. There can be advantages and disadvantages to this, depending upon the circumstances and how amicable the divorcing couple is. One party may feel aggrieved that, for example, their spouse was unfaithful with no apparent blame or consequence; however, the new divorce laws may also prevent a spouse in an abusive relationship from being "trapped" if their spouse would not agree to a divorce, as there is no opportunity to contest. It remains to be seen whether the no-fault divorce law does undermine marriage (as some detractors claim) by making it much easier to divorce rather than for the couple to work through their difficulties and become a stronger couple, looking forward to receiving their telegram from the King on their diamond anniversary.

Divorce Law Solicitors

Our team of divorce law solicitors provide expert, straightforward and compassionate advice in any matter pertaining to divorce law. The team will be able to advise you on whether you are able to apply for a divorce, explain how a divorce could affect you financially or in terms of child arrangements or property and will help you decide if divorce is the best or right option for you to take. We can also offer information on other choices such as mediation and separation.


For further information please contact Karen Connor

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