Why has everyone stopped getting divorced?

This week brought us the very surprising announcement by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that divorces plummeted in 2022. In 2021 there were 113,505 divorces in England and Wales , but in 2022, this fell to only 80,057.

There are various explanations being provided for this startling drop of 29.5% since the previous year. The most common one given by lawyers to the media is that the cost of living crisis has deterred people from starting divorces.

I doubt this is the case, not least because a record 119,709 divorce applications commenced in 2022 were also supposedly caused by the cost of living crisis, according to lawyers quoted in The Times in April 2023. (Note: this figure is for divorce applications commenced, not for decrees absolute/final orders made by the court bringing the marriage to an end; that figure in 2022 was 80,057 as above).

The overall divorce rate seems to be resistant to economic fluctuations. The economy follows its usual cycle of boom and bust, but the divorce rate continues to do what it has done since 1993 when divorces hit a peak of 165,019; it has been falling.

I don’t recall the divorce rate noticeably dipping during the recession of the late 2000’s. I recall going to a networking meeting at the time during which the chief executive of a large local law firm spoke about the financial crisis and recession, and tried to predict what this would mean for his firm. Among other things, he said they expected there to be a surge of divorce work, caused by economic pressure leading to an increased marital breakdowns. Later that day, a colleague quoted this to me; my response that I thought it was simplistic. Economics trends don’t seem to make a difference to the divorce rate. Marriages appear to break down regardless of financial pressures. What was more likely to happen, I argued, was that people would simply become more resistant to incurring legal fees to get divorced. The divorces would still happen, sooner o or later.

I think I was right in that analysis. New instructions fell for a few months and then recovered as people realised that they couldn’t put it off for ever.

A more likely explanation was provided by the ONS. This, it said, “may partially reflect the introduction of new minimum waiting periods, meaning that divorces applied for after 6 April 2022 may take longer to reach final order”. That sounds plausible to me. The divorce rate is not the number of divorce applications begun in the Family Court; the figure shows the numbers of final orders/decrees absolute made by the court bringing marriages to an end. 80,057 marriages were ended, but in the same year a record number of divorce applications, (119,709) were commenced. (For my blog about the minimum waiting period, aka cooling off period, and the problems that causes, see my blog here).

There were a record number of divorces in 2021. They rose from 100,592 in 2020 to 113,595 in 2021, a sudden increase of 9.6%; the drop in 2022 may in part be the trend reverting to normal. That surge was explained by the ONS at the time as being due to delays in the Family Court which caused a surge as the divorces spilled over into the following year.

2022 saw the introduction of no-fault divorces for the first time. There was a noticeable drop in new divorce instructions in the months leading up to the introduction of the new law in April 2022. I think that I only commenced one petition for divorce during the three months before the new law came in. This drop off was to be expected; research by Professor Liz Trinder at the University of Exeter had discovered that in jurisdictions that introduced no-fault divorce, there was a temporary spike of divorces caused by people who had been waiting for the law to change before seeking a divorce. The new law did not cause marriages to break down; the spike in divorces after the new law came in caused a corresponding drop in divorces in the months before the law changed.

Those new no-fault divorces can take longer than they used to due to the cooling off period. An old style divorce could be done in 4 to 6 months in cases where there no financial issues to be resolved, whereas a no-fault divorce takes at least 7 or 8 months. (Where there are financial issues that need resolving before the final order can be made, that is more usually up to 18 months, possibly longer).

The ONS also recently announced that the proportion of people aged 16 or older in England and Wales who are married or in a civil partnership has fallen below 50% for the first time.

The figure dropped to 49.7% in 2021 and then to 49.4% in 2022; this was down from 51.2% in 2012.

Couples cohabiting (but not in a marriage or civil partnership) increased by more than a fifth, from 19.7% in 2012 to 22.7% in 2022. (To find out more about why this means that the law needs to be reformed, see my blog here).

If fewer people are marrying then inevitably the number of people eventually seeking a divorce will also fall.

The sudden drop in divorces is probably a statistical blip. I anticipate that it will return to normal in the next year or two. Nevertheless, the trend continues to fall.

24 February 2024

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