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Ally Tow
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Figures show rise in divorce for opposite-sex couples
Date:18 OCT 2017
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The number of opposite-sex couples divorcing in England and Wales increased by 5.8% in 2016, according to the latest statistical bulletin released today by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS figures show that there were 106,959 divorces of opposite-sex couples in 2016 and that the divorce rate for opposite-sex couples was highest among men aged 45 to 49 and women in their thirties (ages 30 to 39). There were 112 divorces of same-sex couples in 2016; of these 78% were among female couples.


The full Divorces in England and Wales: 2016 stastical bulletin can be found here.

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Nicola Haines, Vital Statistics Outputs Branch, ONS, said:

‘Although the number of divorces of opposite-sex couples in England and Wales increased by 5.8% in 2016 compared with 2015, the number remains 30% lower than the most recent peak in 2003; divorce rates for men and women have seen similar changes.

This is the second year that divorces among same-sex couples have been possible since the introduction of marriages of same-sex couples in March 2014.

Our latest marriage figures show that of the 4,850 marriages formed between same-sex couples in 2014, 56% were female couples. In 2016, there were 112 divorces among same-sex couples, with female couples accounting for 78% of these.’

Commenting on the rise in divorce in opposite-sex couples, Nigel Shepherd, Chair of Resolution, said:

‘Although the numbers of divorces, and the divorce rate, are up on 2015, both are still far lower than their recent peak of 2003. As the ONS recognises, this is almost certainly due, in part, to the rise in the number of cohabiting couples – the fastest growing family type in the UK.

Yet despite this, there is still little or no legal protection for cohabitants should they separate. What’s more, many are living together while still believing there is such a thing as common-law marriage in this country and that as a result they have rights – there isn’t and they don’t. Action needs to be taken to change this.

It’s also important to recognise that behind these statistics, there are tens of thousands of couples who are currently discouraged by the current system from taking a non-confrontational approach to divorce. For many separating couples, the need to apportion blame on the divorce petition can introduce unnecessary conflict, which adds to the stress and heartache for the couple themselves and, crucially, any children they may have.

For decades, "unreasonable behaviour" has been the most common reason for divorce among opposite-sex couples, yet many are forced into playing this ‘blame game’ by our archaic divorce laws.

That’s why we have repeatedly called on government to legislate for no-fault divorce, and will continue to do so. This call is echoed by senior legal figures, such as Baroness Hale, the President of the Supreme Court, and Sir Paul Coleridge, the Chair of the Marriage Foundation.

In the face of such overwhelming support, and with the Supreme Court due next spring to hear the appeal of Mrs Owens, whose divorce has been denied because of the current law, the government needs to listen and take action.

It’s time to make no-fault the default.’

Jo Edwards, partner and Head of Family at Forsters LLP, comments:

'The numbers highlight the changed nature of society; and the stark need for reform in this area:

  • The fact that number of divorces continues to be in general decline is unsurprising. This is consistent with the decline in marriage rates over the past few decades as more couples choose to cohabit without marrying (the fastest growing family type – see the ONS release from late 2016. It is time that policy makers sat up and took notice by legislating for financial rights for cohabiting couples when their relationship ends through separation or death.

  • The fact that the divorce rate has dropped so much has been attributed  to other factors, in addition to the growth in cohabitation – perhaps greater equality and contentment within marriage, as increasingly wives and husband have their own careers; and it may be that some are being put off divorce by the spate of recent high profile big money cases in the press, deciding instead  that “for better, for worse” is the mantra. Having more clarity about how assets are divided on divorce, and a greater focus on achieving financial independence within a defined timeframe of divorce, may give people comfort.

  • The number of divorces to those who have been married at least once before, and to the over 60s, continues to be significant. As life expectancies increase, the concept of having one partner for life is becoming less prevalent. With this trend arises issues such as the enforceability of pre-nups; many getting married have children from a previous marriage for whom they wish to preserve wealth. There ought to be legislation to provide for this, as the Law Commission, Resolution, Baroness Deech and others have advocated.

  • These figures also cover for the first time those who have had same-sex marriages (as the first such marriages took place in March 2014 and could be dissolved after 12 months); in 2015 there were 12 divorces among female couples and 10 divorces among male couples. The average age for those divorces (albeit from a small number) was 33.7 years for women and 42.1 years for men. 

  • Finally, the publication of these statistics shows that, whilst divorce may be in decline, it is here to stay. People are still divorcing in significant numbers and the latest statistics confirm that the vast majority of  those divorces, especially among same-sex couples, are based on unreasonable behaviour. It is time for legislators to recognise that there is a better way, by bringing in no fault divorce. Opponents say that doing so will  lead to a surge in the divorce rate; and that divorce ought to be as difficult as possible, to encourage people to stay married. There is flawed logic in both of those arguments. The reality is that no fault divorce will make the process a much more dignified one for those whose marriage breaks down and, importantly, shield their children from the negative fallout from divorce. With a growing groundswell of opinion about reform – Baroness Hale’s recent comments, the imminent publication of results of an academic study by Professor Liz Trinder and the unease that there has been about Mrs  Owens’ plight, soon to be decided by the Supreme Court – reform cannot come quickly enough.'

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