Sharp rise in number of divorces

The latest annual statistics for divorces in England and Wales, for 2019, have been published by the Office for National Statistics (‘ONS’), and they provide some interesting reading.

Largest increase since 1972

The headline finding from the statistics was that there were 107,599 opposite-sex divorces in 2019, an increase of 18.4% from 90,871 in 2018, and the largest annual percentage increase in the number of divorces since 1972, following the reform of the divorce laws, which made it easier for couples to divorce upon separation.

The figure is also the highest number of opposite-sex divorces recorded since 2014 when 111,169 divorces were granted in England and Wales.

All of this may seem to some to be rather shocking, but the ONS point out that the size of the increase can be partly attributed to a backlog of divorce petitions from 2017 that were processed by the Ministry of Justice in early 2018, some of which will have translated into completed divorces in 2019. This, they say, is likely to have contributed to both the particularly low number of divorces in 2018 (the lowest since 1971), and the increase seen in 2019.

It should also be borne in mind that there has been an overall downward trend in divorce numbers since the most recent peak in 2003, and opposite-sex divorces remain 30% lower than the 2003 figures. The ONS says that the fall in the number of divorces since 2003 is broadly consistent with an overall decline in the number of marriages between 2003 and 2009; since then, the number of marriages has fluctuated while the number of divorces continued to decline overall.

Same-sex divorces up too

Marriage between same-sex couples was only introduced in March 2014. Obviously, this means that it is not yet possible to calculate accurate divorce rates for same-sex couples.

However, the statistics do show a continued year-on-year increase in the number of divorces involving same-sex couples.

There were 822 divorces among same-sex couples in 2019, nearly double that in the previous year, when there were 428 same-sex divorces. Of these, 72% were to female couples, a decrease from 75% in 2018.

What else do the statistics tell us?

Quite a lot, actually.

They tell us that the majority of divorces of opposite-sex couples in 2019 were commenced by the wife (62%), the same proportion as the previous year. Wives have consistently started the majority of opposite-sex divorces in England and Wales since 1949, but the proportion has fallen by 10 percentage points since the peak in 1992, when 72% of divorces were petitioned by the wife.

They also tell us that in 2019 the most common way for opposite-sex couples to prove irretrievable breakdown of their marriage (the ground for divorce) was unreasonable behaviour, with 35% of all husbands and 49% of all wives petitioning for divorce on that basis.

Unreasonable behaviour has consistently been the most common basis for wives petitioning for divorce since the late 1970s, but has only been the most common basis for husbands petitioning since 2006; in the 1980s and 1990s adultery was generally the most common basis for husbands petitioning, while between 1999 and 2005 it was separation (two years with consent).

Unreasonable behaviour was also the most common basis for divorces among same-sex couples in 2019, and 65% of same-sex couples divorced for this reason (70% of male same-sex divorces and 63% of female same-sex divorces).

The statistics also tell us something about the duration of marriages. In 2019 the median duration of marriage (the mid-point of all durations) for divorces granted to opposite-sex couples was 12.3 years, a small decrease from 12.5 years in 2018. The 2018 and 2019 figures have now surpassed the previous high seen in 1972, when it was 12.2 years. Over the last 50 years, the median duration has fluctuated between 8.9 years and 12.5 years.

Your divorce is not just a statistic

If you are here reading this you may well be going through a divorce yourself. We understand that whilst all of the above may certainly be interesting, your divorce is not just a statistic.

Every divorce is a huge personal trauma, if not a tragedy, and one of the most stressful events that anyone can go through during their life.

And every divorce is different, requiring a different, tailored solution.