Are divorces really rising due to COVID?

For many months now, even before lockdown took place in the UK, the media has been filled with reports that all over the world, divorces are rising as a result of lockdowns put in place by governments during the COVID pandemic.

Just as COVID began in China, so too did the claims that divorce rates were rising due to the pressure of lockdown, as the Daily Mail reported on 13 March 2020.

Now, I am wary of believing anything that Chinese government officials might announce. Totalitarian states are not renowned for their adherence to the highest standards of journalism. However, pretty soon similar reports were being made by UK media outlets. The most recent is this from the BBC on 13 September 2020.

This report says that Citizens Advice (formerly known as the Citizens Advice Bureau) is reporting that clicks on its divorce page have surged recently. Well, I have no reason to doubt that, but of course clicks on a charity’s divorce page are not the same as actual divorces being issued by the court. Harry Benson of The Marriage Foundation suggested on Twitter today that the reason for so many clicks is that the first place unmarried people who are cohabiting will click if their relationships are in difficulty is the divorce page of law firm and charity websites, a theory which sounds plausible to me.

The article goes on to quote a large law firm which claims that it is receiving huge numbers of enquiries about divorces. To justify this claim, it states that an increase in conveyancing instructions was “signalling an increase in couples separating and wanting to sell their properties“.

It is true that conveyancing solicitors and estate agents are saying that that they have never been so busy, but is that because people are getting divorced? It seems more likely to me that the surge in conveyancing instructions is probably more likely to due to the stamp duty holiday announced by the government recently. That will come to an end in April, so people are moving quickly while they can, perhaps motivated by the fear that the recent rise in house prices is a bubble that will burst once stamp duty returns, at perhaps a higher rate in April 2021. I can see no evidence that it is being caused by a surge in divorces.

The firm also claimed that September was “ordinarily a busy month for family lawyers” as couples would often “attempt a last-ditch summer holiday” before ending their relationship. September is usually busier than August in my experience, but that is because clients and solicitors tend to be on their holidays. This year, with people still wary of travelling and many not going on holiday, August was quite busy, but I didn’t see a surge of divorces.

One lawyer there is quoted as saying that “about 30% of matrimonial enquires she had received had been from couples separating because of issues in relationships being “exacerbated” during the lockdown”. It certainly hasn’t been my experience.

Even a superstar solicitors like Baroness Shackleton, divorce solicitor to the Prince of Wales and Sir Paul McCartney thought in March that Covid is likely to cause a spike in divorces.

I have to say that I was sceptical about these claims from the start. There are two reasons for my doubts. Firstly, every Christmas, the media prints stories about how the first day back in the office after the Christmas break is “divorce day”, the day of the year where more divorces start than at any other time of the year. However, I think that it’s just so much codswallop. There is not a shred of evidence to support this claim, which, I am afraid to say, is largely the result of a conspiracy by press release pushing law firm marketeers and journalists with space to fill.

Secondly, it is frequently claimed that recessions cause divorces. Recession is of course a by-product of the pandemic. It is fair to say that as a family lawyer and a sole practitioner I have been dreading the next recession ever since the last one happened a decade or so ago. I recall that new cases simply dried up for about 6 months. It was very painful for our business.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that the economic cycle of boom and bust regularly repeats itself. The latest recession is, I think, the fifth during my lifetime, and the second or third during my legal career. However, throughout that time, while economies have grown and shrunk, the divorce rate has gradually fallen over the years. Boom and bust seems to make little difference.

The divorce rate has been falling for years. In 2018, there were just over 91,000 divorces, a sizeable reduction on previous years, although that is thought to largely be a result of terrible backlogs at the Family Court.

In previous years, the number of heterosexual divorces was a picture of steady decline ever since 1993:

2018    91,299

2017    102,007

2016    107,071

2015    101,077

2014    111,169

2013    114,720

2012    118,140

2011    117,558

2010    119,589

2009    113,949

2008    121,708

2007    128,131

2006    132,140

2005    141,322

2004    152,923

2003    153,065

2002    147,735

2001    143,818

2000    141,135

1999    144,556

1998    145,214

1997    146,689

1996    157,107

1995    155,499

1994    158,175

1993    165,018

1992    160,385

1991    158,745

1990    153,386

1989    150,872

1988    152,633

1987    151,007

1986    153,903

1985    160,300

1984    144,501

1983    147,479

1982    146,698

1981    145,713

1980    148,301

1979    138,706

1978    143,667

1977    129,053

1976    126,694

1975    120,522

1974    113,500

(Source: Office for National Statistics)

(Same sex divorce figures are only a few hundred a year, although the figures are rising. Only time will tell if the divorce rate among same sex couples matches heterosexual couples.)

These figures are for concluded divorces, rather than divorce petitions issued, which is not the same, but most divorces do result in a Decree Absolute sooner or later, so it is unlikely that it makes a lot of difference. Of course, these figures only show part of the picture. More and more couples never marry, and their relationships break down without the ability for it to be easily measured.

I can’t help but notice that when I began practising family law in 1996, there were 157,107 divorces every year and now the figure is somewhere near 100,000. It is easier to assume that recessions and pandemics cause divorces, but the above figures show a steady fall in divorces for years. That may be due to a fall in people marrying in the first place. There does seem to have been a highpoint during the recessions in the early eighties and early nineties, but the last recession in 2008 shows a steady fall that has persisted for years.

Some of the media’s claims are nothing more than shameless headline grabbing. The Sun claimed on 29 July 2020 that 1,001 divorces were issued during the first week of lockdown. “Shock figures show Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) saw 1,001 web petitions were filed between March 23 and March 31 alone” it yelled. It then goes on to imply that the new no-fault divorce laws due to be introduced in autumn 2021 will cause this horrific divorce rate to grow.

The trouble with this is the total lack of any context. There is no data cited by The Sun to show whether this figure of 1,001 divorces is more than usual. How many divorces were issued during the same week last year? The article does not say.

If 1,001 divorce petitions are issued every week, then that is a total of 52,052 a year. Well, most years about twice that many divorces take place, so all of a sudden, the figure of 1,001 divorces a week don’t seem quite so shocking. Of course, these 1,001 divorces are just the ones being issued using the new online divorce portal, rather than paper petitions sent to the astonishingly slow and unproductive regional divorce centres. Solicitors in March were still largely using the paper process, but  they have rapidly switched to the new online portal when they started having to work from home and a trip down the road to a post box felt like the deserted London scenes in 28 Days Later.

The Telegraph reported on 3 June 2020 that Co-Op Legal Services was reporting a 42% increase in divorce enquires. Well, perhaps there were, but again enquiries are not the same as actual divorces. The same press release from the Co-Op was then used by Yahoo Finance to claim that meant an additional 38,346 divorces will take place this year, leading to 38,346 houses going on the market that would otherwise not be up for sale.

There’s an awful lot of assumptions there, not least the assumption that the family home is sold in every divorce, which it isn’t.

The only media outlet that I can find that has published evidence that the divorces will not spike is The Independent. It reported in July 2020 that a poll by YouGov showed that people who were considering divorce were in fact more inclined to delay things until after COVID has run its course.

I don’t buy into any of this nonsense. My practice is very busy right now, perhaps busier than normal. However, although I have issued a number of divorces over the past six months, only one of them involved a couple who had separated during the lockdown and COVID did not appear to be the reason. I have had some cases where COVID has been an issue, but that has usually been relating to disputes between parents about seeing children during lockdown, and it certainly hasn’t been a huge part of the work that I have had to deal with over the last few months.

Time will tell. My suspicion is that when we finally get the statistics for how many divorce petitions have been issued during 2020, it will not be much different to previous years. In 2018 the figure was down due to a backlog of work at the court. The new online portal makes the process far more efficient, so any rise might be caused by that, but even then, I don’t expect it to shoot above the usual annual figure of about 100,000 to 110,000 or so.

2021 will, I predict, show a fall in the number of divorces as the implementation of the Divorce Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 approaches. This will introduce proper no-fault divorce for the first time in England and Wales. The evidence from other jurisdictions where this has been introduced is that there is brief spike after the law changes as couples who have been waiting for the new law finally get on with their divorce. If there is a spike, then I expect a trough first as clients delay their divorces. I am already advising some clients that a two years’ separation divorce petition with consent or a five years’ separation petition without consent may not be an option in their case because by the time they have been apart for that long, the law will probably have changed.

I could of course be wrong. In Sweden, (a country that increasingly is looking like it made the right call about whether or not to lock down), there is evidence that that divorces have increased since the pandemic began. Their system is very different to ours – where both sides agree and there are no children, a divorce is possible within a few weeks – but there are at least stats here on which to hang the story.

Having said that, I thought it was lockdown that was going to cause all these new divorces. But the Swedes didn’t lock down, so what does this prove?

14 September 2020

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