House of Commons Library

"No-fault divorce"

Published Tuesday, October 2, 2018

This Commons Library briefing paper considers the current basis for divorce, arguments for and against the introduction of "no-fault" divorce, and the Government's consultation paper, Reform of the legal requirements for divorce

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England and Wales

Parts 1 to 6 of this briefing paper deal with the position in England and Wales.

Current basis for divorce

The only ground for divorce is that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. The court cannot hold that the marriage has broken down irretrievably unless the petitioner satisfies the court of one or more of five facts, three of which are fault based (adultery, behaviour, desertion). Two of the facts relate to periods of separation – two years if both parties consent, and five years without consent.

Owens v Owens

In 2016, a judge in the Central Family Court refused to grant Mrs Owens (the petitioner) a decree nisi of divorce, even though he found that the marriage had broken down.   The husband had defended the divorce – defended divorces are rare in practice. The judge found that Mrs Owens had failed to prove, within the meaning of the law, that her husband had behaved in such a way that she could not reasonably be expected to live with him.

Both the Court of Appeal in 2017, and the Supreme Court in 2018, dismissed the petitioner’s appeal. Judges in both courts said that it was for Parliament and not judges to change the law. In the Court of Appeal, Sir James Munby, then President of the Family Division, spoke of an aspect of the law and procedures being based on “hypocrisy and lack of intellectual honesty”.

Family Law Act 1996 provisions for no-fault divorce: not implemented and now repealed

Part 2 of the Family Law Act 1996 would have introduced “no-fault divorce” and required the parties to a divorce to attend “information meetings” with a view to encouraging reconciliation where possible. In 2001, following a series of information meeting pilot schemes, the then Government concluded that the provisions were “unworkable”. The relevant provisions in Part 2 have now been repealed.

Lords Private Member’s Bill

In July 2018, Baroness Butler-Sloss (Crossbench) introduced a Lords Private Member’s Bill, which would require the Lord Chancellor to review the law relating to divorce and judicial separation and to the dissolution of civil partnerships and the separation of civil partners. The review would include consideration of whether the law ought to be changed so that irretrievable breakdown of a marriage or civil partnership is evidenced solely by a system of application and notification.

Government consultation paper

On 15 September 2018, the Ministry of Justice published a consultation paper, Reform of the legal requirements for divorce. The consultation will close on 10 December 2018. It asks for views on replacing the current requirement to establish one or more of the five facts to show that a marriage has broken down irretrievably, with a process based on notification. The Government is proposing to remove both the ability to allege fault and the ability to contest (defend) a divorce.

In his Ministerial Foreword, David Gauke, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, referred specifically to the Owens case, and said that it had generated broader questions about what the law requires of people going through divorce and what it achieves in practice.

The Government has provided this overview of what is proposed and why:

  • The breakdown of a marriage is a difficult time for families. The decision to divorce is often a very painful one. Where children are involved, the effects in particular where there is ongoing conflict, can be profound.
  • Under current law in England and Wales, couples must either live apart for a substantial period of time before they may divorce, or else they must make allegations about their spouse's conduct. This is sometimes perceived as showing that the other spouse is "at fault".
  • Both routes can cause further stress and upset for the divorcing couple, to the detriment of outcomes for them and any children. There have been wide calls to reform the law to address these concerns, often framed as removing the concept of "fault".
  • The government therefore proposes to reform the legal requirements for divorce so that it is consistent with the approach taken in other areas of family law, and to shift the focus from blame and recrimination to support adults better to focus on making arrangements for their own futures and for their children's. The reformed law should have 2 objectives:
    • to make sure that the decision to divorce continues to be a considered one, and that spouses have an opportunity to change course
    • to make sure that divorcing couples are not put through legal requirements which do not serve their or society's interests and which can lead to conflict and accordingly poor outcomes for children
  • This consultation proposes adjusting what the law requires to bring a legal end to a marriage that has broken down irretrievably. This adjustment includes removing the ability to allege "fault".


Previous calls for introduction of no-fault divorce

Among others, some senior members of the Judiciary; the Family Mediation Taskforce; Resolution (the national organisation of family lawyers); and The Times newspaper have called for the introduction of no‑fault divorce.

In October 2017, the report of a Nuffield Foundation funded research project, led by Professor Liz Trinder of Exeter University, recommended removing fault entirely from divorce law and replacing it with a notification system. The report concluded that it was time for the law to be reformed to address the mismatch between law and practice.

In 2015, Richard Bacon introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill which aimed to allow no-fault divorce. That Bill did not proceed any further.

Advocates of this form of divorce speak of reducing the conflict which can be caused by allegations of fault. In some cases, the assertion of fault is considered to be a “charade”.

Arguments against no-fault divorce

The arguments of those who oppose the introduction of no-fault divorce include that the institution of marriage should be supported; the risk of the divorce rate increasing if it is perceived to be easier to get a divorce; and the negative impact of family breakdown.  


Part 7 of this briefing paper deals with the position in Scotland.

The basis for divorce under the Divorce (Scotland) Act 1976 was originally very similar to that in England and Wales. The irretrievable breakdown of marriage had to be evidenced by one of five facts, including two years separation with consent and five years separation without consent. However, the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 reduced the separation periods from two years to one where there is consent, and from five to two years where the respondent does not consent. The ‘desertion’ fact was also removed.

A simplified (do it yourself) divorce procedure may be used with the no‑fault facts (there are also other qualifying criteria). This is now the most frequently used procedure.


Commons Briefing papers SN01409

Authors: Catherine Fairbairn; Cassie Barton

Topic: Divorce

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