The Changes in Divorce- Then to Now

The Changes in Divorce- Then to Now

The no-fault divorce laws introduced in 2022 have sparked a new dawn in divorce law.

The no-fault divorce laws introduced in 2022 have sparked a new dawn in divorce law. The primary change brought in by the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 is that divorcing couples no longer must cite blame when they file for divorce, a move designed to make the process simpler. 

Understandably, since the introduction, there has been a decrease in the number of divorce petitions, according to Major Family Law, which states that filings for divorce have fallen for the third year in a row. Despite these fundamental shifts in the law, this is not the first time they have changed. We explore how divorce laws have changed over the last two centuries and the significance of the new laws today. 

In the beginning…

In the beginning, divorce was very much a ‘luxury’ for the rich who could get a divorce through an Act of Parliament. But things began to change in 1857 when divorce proceedings were moved from parliament to the civil courts. The Matrimonial Clauses Act made divorce more accessible to ordinary people. At the time, the bill was controversial as some saw it as a usurpation of the authority of the Church, while others viewed it as a positive step for women’s rights.

Matrimonial Clauses Act 1923

In 1923, the Matrimonial Clauses Act was brought in as a Private Member’s Bill. This new bill enabled both men and women to divorce on the grounds of adultery. At the time, it was considered a victory for equality.

The introduction of ‘matrimonial offences’

In 1937, a change in the Act came when three new grounds for divorce were introduced. These were cruelty, insanity, and desertion. In addition, the Act also changed the law stating that couples could not petition for divorce within the first three years of marriage unless there were exceptional grounds. 

The Divorce Reform Act of 1969

One of the biggest pieces of legislation was the Divorce reform Act of 1969, introduced by the Labour government. The new laws were brought in to make proceedings easier by allowing couples to divorce following a two-year separation if both parties agreed, and five years if only one party still wanted the divorce. Couples could now also request a no-fault divorce. The Divorce Reform Act had one of the most significant effects on divorce statistics with the number of divorces rising substantially. In 1973, changes to the Act were introduced to consolidate various elements of the existing law, this included maintenance agreements, British nationality, and marriage validity. It also stipulated that unreasonable behaviour must behaviour that cannot be reasonably expected to live with. 

The Divorce, Dissolution, and Separation Act 2020

1973 was the last time changes were introduced before the new no-fault divorces came into effect on 6th April 2022. The fundamental aim of the reforms is to reduce the amount of conflict involved in divorces. It does this by removing the need to cite fault or detail the behaviour of spouses, and it also allows married couples to jointly apply for a divorce. 

A summary of the key points of the Divorce, Dissolution, and Separation Act 2020

  • Joint applications – although spouses can still apply for a divorce individually, joint applications can also be made. This reduces the potential for more adversarial proceedings with a ‘petitioner’ and a ‘respondent – both parties are now ‘the applicants’ 
  • No-fault – applicants do not need to evidence unreasonable behaviour or have a period of two – five years to get a divorce. They can simply state that the marriage or civil partnership is irretrievably broken down. 
  • Reflection period. There is now a 20-week period following the start of the divorce when spouses can reflect on their decision and make practical plans, for example, child arrangements
  • Terminology – the vocabulary associated with divorce has changed. As well as ‘applicants’ there is now a Conditional Order replacing ‘Decree Nisi’ and a Final Order, replacing Decree Absolute. 
  • Contesting a divorce. It is also no longer possible to contest a divorce or the end of a Civil Partnership unless there are exceptional circumstances. It is thought this element will protect victims of domestic abuse. Previously, being able to contest a divorce has meant some abusers have been able to prolong their control by not allowing the divorce to go ahead quickly. 


The historical pattern of divorce law reform has changed in line with the needs of society over the years, and the laws will likely change again in the future. For now, there has been largely positive support from lawyers and rights groups who believed the old laws were no longer relevant and outdated. Despite this, some groups have argued that the new legislation that requires no fault to be declared, will introduce a new, higher level of divorce rates in the coming years. 

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