The pandemic and the resulting lockdown will no doubt lead to a rise in the ONS divorce figures for the year of 2020

The most recent article published by the Sky News on the 17 November, stating that “Divorces in England and Wales see highest percentage increase in 50 years” is, however, rather unhelpful at this time when many will link the rise in the recent ONS statistics to COVID-19.

For clarity, they are not referring to divorce rates in 2020 which the ONS will not be releasing until 2021. In addition, while they are indeed correct that divorces rose among heterosexual couples from 90,871 in 2018, to 107,599 in 2019, the headline does not allude to the drop from the 2017 figure of 101,699.

It was reported in the Gazette on the 2 December 2019, that the “ONS expects to report a higher number for 2019 as the centres, which have been widely criticised for delays and inefficiencies, tackle a backlog” and so this rise should not come as a surprise.

The almost doubling in divorces, from 428 to 822, between same-sex couples should be taken with a pinch of salt, as same-sex marriage was only legalised in 2014. It is a good indication, however, that divorces will continue to rise among same-sex couples.

The last decade has generally seen a decline in divorces from 119,589 in 2010. One of the main arguments behind this is that more people cohabitate before getting married, in part so that they will have a better idea of whether their relationship will last and whether they should tie the knot. When looking at the ONS statistics on this, the number of cohabitating couples increased from 1.7M in 1996 to 3.4M by 2018. The number of married couples, however, remains stable, counting 12.6M in 1996 with only a small rise of 200,000 by 2018. Any effect that cohabitating couples would have on divorce would therefore be minimal.

Another possible reason given is that many people are now getting married when they are older, meaning they are more mature and have more relationship experience and possibly more likely to make better choices about who to marry. The number of brides and grooms aged 65 and over went up by 46% in a decade, from 7,468 in 2004 to 10,937 in 2014. This is against the backdrop of an ageing population, however, with the number of people aged 65 and over up by 20% in the same period. In reality, almost 92% of the brides and grooms aged 65 and over in 2014 were divorcees, widows or widowers, with only 8% getting married for the first time.

When looking to the impact of COVID-19 on a potential rise in divorces, one should look to data provided to the BBC in September from Citizens Advice. The data showed that on the first weekend of September 2020, the advice webpage had more than 2200 views, which was a 25% increase compared to the same weekend in 2019. In July, weekly searches for “getting a divorce” on their webpage, spiked to nearly 14000, compared to just over 8000 during the same period in 2019.

Tom MacInnes, chief analyst for Citizen’s Advice, is reported to have said: “We know that this pandemic has put an enormous strain on people financially but our data shows that strain is also being felt in people’s relationships”.

This rise in searches will no doubt have an effect on the ONS statistics in 2021 for the year of 2020, but it must be remembered that the data from the Citizens Advice does not begin to account for those who go directly to solicitors for legal advice.

Looking ahead to 2021 we should be aware of the precarious financial position that the UK finds itself in as a result of heavy borrowing in response to the pandemic and the very real possibility of leaving the European Union without a trading deal. Recession is viewed as a common factor in the spikes of divorces. In 2008, for example, there were 121,708 divorces.  There is no doubt that financial hardship can put enormous amounts of strain people’s relationships.

If you require advice in respect of divorce or cohabitation then please contact the Family and Matrimonial Department for further advice and assistance.

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