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Landmark Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill

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On 13 June 2019, the government introduced the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill.

This Bill reforms the legal requirements and process for divorce, dissolution and judicial separation set out in the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 and the Civil Partnership Act 2004.

The changes aim to encourage a forward-looking, non-confrontational approach, to reduce conflict between separating couples, and its damaging effect on children.

References in this legal update to marriage include civil partnerships, and references to divorce include dissolution of a civil partnership and judicial separation.

The Bill retains the sole ground of divorce as irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, but removes the requirement to evidence it with one of the five "facts". It replaces this with the provision of a statement that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. No evidence to support the relationship breakdown is required. As well as one party initiating divorce proceedings, the Bill allows both parties to make a joint application where the decision to divorce is mutual.

The Bill introduces a minimum period of 20 weeks between the start of proceedings and the date a party confirms they wish to seek a conditional order (decree nisi). The existing six-week period between conditional order and final order (decree absolute) will be retained. These timescales mean a divorce cannot be finalised in less than six months, allowing the couple time to reflect on the implications of the decision to divorce, and to plan and agree future arrangements.

The Bill removes the possibility of contesting the decision to divorce. The court will take the statement of irretrievable breakdown as conclusive evidence that the marriage has irretrievably broken down. This will avoid costly and distressing litigation such as that in Owens v Owens [2018].

Divorce proceedings can still be challenged for other reasons, including lack of jurisdiction, invalidity of the marriage, fraud and procedural non-compliance.

The Bill refers to "conditional order" rather than "decree nisi", "divorce order" rather than "decree absolute", and "applicant" rather than "petitioner", to make the legal terminology more accessible. The term "conditional order" is retained for civil partnerships, with "dissolution order" referring to the dissolution.

Sources: Ministry of Justice: End to divorce "blame game" moves closer (13 June 2019) and Ministry of Justice: Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Bill (13 June 2019).