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1969 Divorce Reform Act

1969 Divorce Reform Act

Instances of divorce were rare in the United Kingdom before the First World War. Divorce was perceived as scandalous and only attained upon submission of categoric proof of adultery or violence. Furthermore, before specific legislation, divorce could only be obtained through a Private Act of Parliament. This expensive exercise ensured only the wealthy could get divorced. While there were attempts to adapt divorce legislation throughout the early- to mid-20th century, the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 implemented significant changes.

Adultery

The act of sexual intercourse between a married individual and someone who is not their marital partner.

Let's dive into Divorce Reform in the 20th century!

Divorce Reform Act Timeline

Let's first look at a brief timeline outlining divorce reform in the UK:

DateEvent
1670s Divorce became part of English law. Only men could file for divorce on the grounds of life-threatening behaviour or adultery. The man kept all children, assets, and property during the divorce proceedings.
1839The Custody of Infants Act 1839 meant that mothers could apply for custody of their children.
1857 The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 created the Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes.
1870 - 1893The Married Women's Property Acts (1870-1893) redefined the rights of married women, dismissing the notion that a woman was her husband's property.
1923The 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act meant women no longer had to prove adultery to file for divorce.
1937The 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act expanded the grounds for divorce to include cruelty, adultery, insanity, and desertion.
1969The 1969 Divorce Reform Act meant unhappy couples could now file for a no-fault divorce.
1973All existing divorce laws were consolidated into the 1973 Matrimonial Causes Act.
1984The Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act of 1984 permitted couples to file for divorce after one year of marriage. Previously, it was three years. Furthermore, it gave UK courts the power to provide financial relief for overseas annulments.
2000The Case of White v White.

No-Fault Divorce

A divorce in which a couple does not have to prove any wrongdoing.

Divorce Legislation History

Let's look at the development of divorce legislation from the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act to the 1969 Divorce Reform Act.

Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 summary

The first Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) gave ordinary people the right to appeal for divorce. Men could file for divorce on the grounds of adultery, and women could apply on the grounds of life-threatening cruelty. Furthermore, the Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) gave the newly created Court for Divorce and Matrimonial Causes the power to annul marriages; this power had previously resided with the church.

Life-threatening cruelty

In terms of divorce legislation in 1857, incest, rape, and desertions are examples of life-threatening cruelty.

Matrimonial Causes Act 1923 summary

The 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act removed the gender double standard of the initial 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act. Consequently, it made adultery by either party the sole ground for divorce. This was the first instance where both men and women were on an equal footing regarding divorce. However, the requirement to prove adultery to acquire divorce remained.

Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 summary

This 1937 Matrimonial Causes Act was passed as a Private Member's Bill by MP A.P. Herbert. This Act once again responded to changing attitudes toward divorce and expanded the grounds for divorce to include:

  • Desertion (of three or more years).
  • Cruelty.
  • 'Incurable insanity'.

The introduction of 'incurable insanity' as sufficient grounds for divorce allowed no-fault divorces for the first time. This was because an individual had no control over an 'incurable' mental illness. Either party, husband or wife, could file for a divorce on the grounds of 'incurable insanity'.

Divorce Reform Act 1969 summary

During the Swinging Sixties, Harold Wilson's Labour government, which was in power between 1964 and 1970, passed the 1969 Divorce Reform Act.

Divorce Reform Harold Wilson StudySmarterFig. 1 Harold Wilson.

The Act was a transformative piece of legislation. It allowed couples to end marriages that had 'irretrievably broken down' and meant either party could now file for a no-fault divorce. A spouse did not need grounds, such as adultery or desertion, to get divorced. If both parties agreed, the couple could file for a divorce if they had been separated for two years. If only one party wanted a divorce, the couple had to have been separated for five years.

Despite the monumental ruling, the bill was also subject to heated debate. It was labelled 'Casanova’s Charter' by detractors who argued it would allow men to marry and leave an “innocent” wife in a perilous financial situation every five years.

Divorce Reform Act 1969 Impact on Family Life

The Divorce Reform Act had a significant sociological impact. Let's look at some changes to family life due to the legislation.

Rise in Divorce Rates

Upon the passing of the Divorce Reform Act, there was a significant rise in divorce rates across the UK. The piece of legislation prompted the increase in divorce rates for the following reasons:

  • The Divorce Reform Act made getting a divorce vastly easier.
  • The ease of obtaining a divorce weakened the institution of marriage as the lifelong commitment it once was.
  • By introducing 'no-fault divorces', the legislation removed the centuries-old taboos surrounding divorce.

A 2015 study by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) illustrates the rise in divorce rates after the Divorce Reform Act. The ONS discovered that in 1967, approximately three married couples per thousand got divorced; a decade later, this figure had almost quadrupled.1

Increased Cohabitation

Before 1969, only 3% of couples under 30 lived with their partner out of wedlock; just a decade later, approximately 25% of couples under 50 were cohabiting. The instances of cohabitation continued to rise exponentially; by 1998, the Cabinet Office revealed that 75% of pre-marital couples lived together before getting married.

Cohabitation

When a non-married couple lives together.

Increased cohabitation and the reduced stigma surrounding divorce prompted the rise in babies born out of wedlock. A 2008 BBC article by Mark Easton demonstrates this trend. Easton discovered that in 1971, only 9% of all babies born were outside wedlock; by 1999, this figure had reached 40%. 2

The Breakdown of the Nuclear Family

The Divorce Reform Act prompted the decline of the nuclear family and the rise of stepfamilies and single mothers.

Nuclear Family

A family unit comprising two married parents of the opposite sex and their children.

Increase in Single Mothers

Since the passing of the Divorce Reform Act in 1969, the number of single mothers in the UK has risen. The Divorce Reform Act prompted a change in attitude towards motherhood, with women becoming more independent and less beholden to the traditional maternal stereotype. Female liberation was a common tenet throughout the 1970s. Many women in the UK drew inspiration from the Suffragette Movement and fought for liberalising reforms.

Suffragette Movement:

An early 1900s organisation that fought to win women the right to vote.

Divorce Reform Suffragettes StudySmarterFig. 2 Suffragette Funeral Procession for Emily Davison.

In 1972, approximately 95% of UK children lived in a household with both parents, with only 5% living solely with their single mother. In 2006, approximately 75% of children lived in a home with both parents, with 25% living with their single mother. While the percentage of single mothers has consistently increased, the rate of children living solely with their single fathers has remained relatively consistent: 3

Rise in step-families

Until 1969, stepfamilies were taboo and regarded as 'broken homes'. Divorce reform prompted a change in attitude regarding stepfamilies, with non-traditional family units becoming the norm. A 2017 Cabinet Office report reiterates this change, declaring that one-tenth of all families in the United Kingdom were stepfamilies.4

White v White

White v White (2000) was a landmark case that significantly changed divorce legislation. Let's take an in-depth look at this case study.

Background of White v White (2000)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the partners' needs became the focal point of divorces rather than the financial division of matrimonial assets.

Matrimonial Assets

The finances and property a couple acquire during marriage.

In divorce cases where the matrimonial assets outweighed the couple's financial needs, the spouse – usually the wife – would receive less than half of the matrimonial assets. This procedure was discriminatory against women and didn't protect non-employed mothers.

The Facts of White v White (2000)

Here are some quick facts about the landmark case:

  • Martin and Pamela White had been married for 33 years.
  • When they filed for divorce, their children were living independently.
  • Mr and Mrs White owned a farm.
  • In the early years of owning the farm, Mr White's family provided financial contributions.
  • Their assets totalled approximately 4 million pounds.

White v White (2000) Court of Appeal

Initially, Mrs White received £980,000, a sum based on her financial needs. However, if Mrs White had been a business partner, she would have received more money. This led the court to revise the amount, awarding her £1.7 million. The amount was slightly below an equal split because Mr White's family had contributed to the farm.

Both Mr and Mrs White appealed against the decision. Mr White believed that finances should be split on a needs basis. In contrast, Mrs White believed that finances should be divided equally.

White v White (2000): The House of Lords

The House of Lords upheld the ruling of the Court of Appeal, amending the existing needs-based divorce law to keep up with societal changes. The House of Lords:

  • Recognised that assets should be split equally.
  • Stated that there should be no bias in favour of the money-earner.
  • Recognised the role of the 'home-maker'.

The court stated that while the needs of both parties must be met, in some cases, assets are significantly greater than the resources required to satisfy the couple's needs.

Divorce Reform House of Lords StudySmarterFig. 3 The House of Lords.

The House of Lords also recognised that by being a stay-at-home parent, a spouse might lose the opportunity to develop skills, acquire qualifications, and earn money. The House of Lords stated that gender discrimination could no longer be a factor in asset allocation.

If, in their different spheres, each contributed equally to the family, then in principle, it matters not which of them earned the money and built up the assets... There should be no bias in favour of the money-earner and the childcare. As a general guide, equality should be departed from only if, and to the extent that, there is good reason for doing so.5

- Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead

Reasons for the Increase in Divorce Rates

Over the last half-century, there has been a steady rise in divorce rates in the United Kingdom. What are the reasons for the increase in divorces?

  • Change in Legislation: Divorce rates in the United Kingdom grew exponentially after the 1969 Divorce Reform Act due to the option of no-fault divorce, making divorces easier.
  • Female Emancipation: In the early 1900s, women were unlikely to file for divorce because of the financial risks of losing their husbands. Nowadays, women are more likely to have financial assets independent of their spouses.
  • Secularisation: There are far fewer social stigmas surrounding divorces than in the past. Furthermore, there is an increasing belief that marriage is a legal contract that a legal ruling can annul. In the past, marriage was regarded as a religious agreement.
  • Child Maintenance: The Child Support Act (1991) made it compulsory for men to pay child maintenance in the event of a divorce.

Current Divorce Legislation

Per the 1969 Divorce Reform Act / Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, one or more of the following attributes must be verified to prove the 'irretrievable breakdown of the marriage':

  1. Unreasonable behaviour.
  2. Adultery.
  3. Desertion, lasting at least two years.
  4. A minimum of two years of separation if both parties consent.
  5. A minimum of five years of separation if only one spouse consents.

1969 Divorce Reform Act - Key takeaways

  • During the 1670s, divorce was introduced into English law. Only men could file for divorce on the grounds of life-threatening behaviour or adultery.
  • The Matrimonial Causes Act (1857) gave ordinary people the right to appeal for divorce. Men could file for divorce on the grounds of adultery. Women could apply on the grounds of life-threatening cruelty, such as incest, rape, and desertion.
  • The 1969 Divorce Reform Act meant unhappy couples could file for a no-fault divorce. This meant couples no longer needed to prove they had serious grounds for filing.
  • The 1969 Divorce Reform Act made obtaining a divorce more accessible, with the introduction of no-fault divorces removing the taboo previously associated with divorce. This prompted a rise in divorces, an increase in cohabitation, and the breakdown of the nuclear family.
  • The case of White v White(2000):
    • Recognised that assets should be split equally.
    • Stated that there should be no bias in favour of the money-earner.
    • Recognised the role of the 'home-maker'.

References

  1. Office for National Statistics, Divorces in England and Wales: 2015, 1950 to 2015 (2017)
  2. Office for National Statistics, Babies being born outside wedlock, in Mark Easton 'Births outside marriage - a real cause for concern', BBC News (24 September 2008).
  3. Office for National Statistics, 'Children by Family Type' in 'One-parent families on the rise', BBC News (11 April 2007)
  4. Office for National Statistics, Divorces in England and Wales: 2015, 1950 to 2015 (2017)
  5. Lord Nicholls, 'The Case of White vs White', Judicial Committee of the House of Lords (26 October 2000) in Stowe Family Law Important Family Law Cases: White v White (2014)
  6. Fig 3. 'The House of Lords' by Herry Lawford is licensed by (CC BY 2.0)

Frequently Asked Questions about 1969 Divorce Reform Act

The 1969 Divorce Reform Act was a transformative piece of legislation. It allowed couples to end marriages that had 'irretrievably broken down' and meant either party could now file for a no-fault divorce; an individual did not need grounds, such as adultery or desertion, to get divorced.  

The Act was introduced during the Swinging Sixties. It was passed by the Harold Wilson's Labour government, which was in power between 1964 and 1970.  

The Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act of 1984 permitted couples to file for divorce after one year of marriage; under the 1969 Divorce Reform Act, couples had to be married for three years.

The 1969 Divorce Reform Act meant unhappy couples could now file for a no-fault divorce. This meant couples no longer needed to prove that they had serious grounds for filing.

The 1969 Divorce Reform Act meant people could end marriages that had 'irretrievably broken down'. Furthermore, neither partner had to prove 'fault'.  

Final 1969 Divorce Reform Act Quiz

Question

Define Adultery

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Answer

Adultery is the act of sexual intercourse between a married individual and someone who is not their marital partner.


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Question

What year was the Matrimonial Causes Act first passed?

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Answer

1857

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Question

Why was the Matrimonial Causes Act significant?

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Answer

It allowed ordinary people to file for divorce.

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Question

Why was the 1923 Matrimonial Causes Act significant?

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Answer

Removed the gender double-standard

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Question

What year was the Divorce Reform Act?

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Answer

1969

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Question

Which government passed the Divorce Reform Act?

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Answer

Harold Wilson's Labour Government

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Question

What is a 'no fault' divorce?

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Answer

A divorce in which a couple does not have to prove any wrongdoing.

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Question

Give one outcome of the 1969 Divorce Reform Act:

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Answer

Any of the following:


- Rise in divorce rates

- Increase in cohabitation

- Breakdown in the nuclear family

- Increase in single mothers

- Rise in stepfamilies



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Question

What year was the case of White vs White?

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Answer

2000

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Question

What are Matrimonial Assets?

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Answer

The finances and property a couple acquires during marriage.

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