Spouses will no longer be able to contest a divorce following changes to the law

(Photo: Unsplash/Zoriana Stakhniv)

Spouses who do not want to divorce will no longer be able to contest it under changes to the law being announced by Justice Secretary David Gauke today.

At present, husbands and wives are able to challenge an application for divorce that has been initiated by their spouse.

That will no longer be the case when the changes come into effect a few months from now in what is the most radical shake-up of British divorce laws in half a century. 

Other changes include removing the need to find fault as grounds for a divorce and introducing a minimum six month timeframe before a divorce can be granted.

At present, spouses must show evidence of "unreasonable behaviour" in order to be granted a divorce.  If they are unable to do this, they must wait several years before qualifying for a divorce, conditions which will now be scrapped.

The Government said the changes were being introduced to help reduce levels of conflict between parents experiencing relationship breakdown and the subsequent damage that can be caused to children.  

It also claimed that "marriages are not saved by the ability of one spouse to 'contest' a divorce in court" and that this provision in the current law was "known to be misused by abusers choosing to contest a divorce purely to continue their coercive and controlling behaviour". 

Mr Gauke said: "Hostility and conflict between parents leave their mark on children and can damage their life chances.

"While we will always uphold the institution of marriage, it cannot be right that our outdated law creates or increases conflict between divorcing couples.

"So I have listened to calls for reform and firmly believe now is the right time to end this unnecessary blame game for good." 

Aidan Jones OBE, Chief Executive at relationship support charity, Relate said the "outdated" requirement to apportion blame "increased animosity" and made it "harder for ex-partners to develop positive relationships as co-parents".

But Colin Hart, chairman of the Coalition for Marriage, voiced concern that the changes will lead to a spike in divorces.

"The Government is setting out to destroy the foundations of marriage by allowing cheating or bored spouses to walk away from a solemn, lifelong commitment whenever they choose and with the full support, and even encouragement, of the state," he said. 

"It's all very well for the Minister to claim that he will always uphold the institution of marriage but marriage is being turned into an agreement with less security than a tenancy contract. This is not what people want. If it was they would not commit 'until death them do part'." 

Family Policy Officer at Christian advocacy group CARE, Jonathan Williams, shared similar concerns, saying the plans were "incredibly misguided" and would "undermine" marriage. 

"If you make it easier to get a divorce, it is inevitable that the divorce rate will go up," he said.

"Today, the Government is putting forward a view of marriage that prioritises individual freedom, rather than encouraging sacrifice and commitment.

"To make marriage a relationship that one can exit unilaterally simply by saying you want out will fundamentally undermine the ability of marriage to bring stability to the lives of adults and children.

"We all agree that divorce is often hardest on children, but we think these changes will in fact lead to an increase in family breakdown, which is already at record high levels in the UK and therefore these changes will harm children, not help them."

He added: "The Government should be helping couples to stay together, rather than making it easier for them to split up."

Harry Benson, from the Marriage Foundation, has a different view and believes Christians have "nothing to fear" from the proposed changes.

"The fact is that once people pass through the door of the lawyer's office, the marriage is over," he said.

"We may wish it otherwise but that's the way it is. Almost no couples reconcile beyond this point. Moreover divorce represents the failure of a relationship.

"Even if one person appears to be guilty of appalling behaviour, it would be a foolish person who would attribute 100 per cent of the blame to one party and zero per cent to the other.

"Attributing blame hardly sets warring parents up for the task ahead that requires cooperation. The new law does not make divorce easy.

"It's breaking up that is hard to do. The legal process is merely the dotting of i's and crossing of t's. The really big issue we should be concerned about as Christians is couples who don't commit formally in the first place. With divorce rates at their lowest since the 1960s, today's marriages are doing really well. It is cohabiting couples who are three times as likely to split up."