After a year of uncertainty, delays, and living in lockdown limbo, many separating couples are looking to proceed with their plans for divorce in 2021, but what does the legal landscape look like following the pandemic, and what changes lie ahead?
There are conflicting opinions over whether divorce rates will increase as a result of the pandemic but according to the most recent data the number of divorces actually decreased during 2020 – though this is most likely due to the restrictions of lockdown, delays to the family courts and the fact that pretty much everything was put on hold while we all came to terms with the reality of this new situation.
There are two contrasting sides to the effects of the pandemic when it comes to divorce. Many couples going through a rocky patch were forced to face up to the root of their problems during the intensity and stress of lockdown, and while for some the pressure of the situation was the last straw, for others it has brought them closer and encouraged them to work on their relationship for the better. Similarly, for those who had made the decision to split, there were two very different sides to the coin when it came to moving things forward. Many put their 2020 divorce plans on hold amidst economic uncertainty and the logistical complications of lockdown – either waiting until things become more stable or until no fault divorce becomes a valid option in the autumn – while others prioritised the separation process and tried to get it over and done with as quickly as possible to take advantage of the stamp duty holiday.
Either way, for many separating couples, 2020 was a year of slow progress and frustrating delays, and they will be looking forward to 2021 being the year where things begin to start moving again. Luckily, one of the main changes to UK divorce in 2021 should make separation much easier by streamlining the process and reducing stress and animosity around assigning blame.
Following the passing of the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 in June last year, the introduction of a ‘no fault’ divorce option is due to come into effect in autumn 2021. New laws will replace the current system to remove the need for blame-based grounds of adultery, unreasonable behaviour and desertion, and otherwise negate the need for a 2-5-year separation period for those who are not able or do not wish to state a specific reason. Instead, the no fault divorce process will allow for a simple statement of ‘irretrievable breakdown’ of a relationship, removing one of the main factors that tends to lead to animosity and encouraging couples to focus on the practicalities of their divorce rather than spending months arguing about the details of the petition itself. Additionally, couples may also make a joint application rather than one or other initiating proceedings (which in itself can feel like an inflammatory act when emotions are high), helping pave the way for a more cooperative, amicable process right from the outset.
For divorcing couples with international ties, however, there’s also the rather obvious elephant in the room… Brexit. Previously, if one member of a couple was based in the UK and the other was based in the EU, their divorce would take place in the country of whoever was first to commence proceedings. However, as of 1st January 2021, EU laws on divorce no longer apply to the UK and the location of UK-EU divorces will be decided on which country has the ‘closest connection’ to the couple. This decision will be obviously by made on a case-by-case basis, and will be determined by a number of factors, such as the nationalities of each party, the location of their main home, assets, place of employment, and where their children are raised and/or attend school. While in some ways the new system offers a more holistic approach to determining the most appropriate place to divorce, it also has the potential to become somewhat complicated, leaving the process open to contested views on what constitutes a ‘closest connection’, not to mention the complications of international travel during the pandemic. As with any separation, your best chance for minimising stress and streamlining the process is to work together with your spouse as much as possible to find a mutually-beneficial outcome for both of you.
No matter your situation, if you’re planning on looking into divorce in 2021, first make sure you speak to a solicitor who will be able to talk you through all your options in line with the changes this year. There’s no we size fits all when it comes to separation so it’s important to find the right solution to suit your circumstances and, as much as possible, work with your ex to find an amicable resolution. For more information on no-fault divorce and the impact of Brexit on international separation, get in touch with our team at Frances Lindsay & Co and arrange a free 45-minute family law consultation to discuss your circumstances.