Spikes in divorce cases are not unusual during certain periods of the year, specifically September after the summer holidays and most often between December and January, right after Christmas. This is partly due to the amount of time families spend together, but usually as a result of the stress (both financial and otherwise) that the festive season can bring.

The experience of our family law team this year has been that the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the seasonality of divorce and has been the cause of a significant rise in cases in 2020.

It is clear that social distancing measures and prolonged contact with a set household has created an anxious and uncertain environment for many.  Spending time in constant, close proximity for months can no doubt put extra strain on marriages which are already fragile.

The uptrend in divorces is supported by statistical evidence that shows rates at 33% in 2020, growing from roughly 7.5% in 2019. The BBC, quoting the charity Citizens Advice, reports that divorce guidance searches have risen since April 2020 with views up by 25% in September, compared with the same date in 2019,

Higher divorce rates are certainly a result of COVID-19 restrictions, but what is it in particular that has caused many to certify that their marriages have broken down beyond repair? Firstly, the pandemic has led to a struggling economy and now the first recession in 11 years. The loss of many jobs has no doubt left thousands with families struggling financially and relying on unemployment benefits. The unemployment rate for July to September was 4.8% which is 0.9% higher than the previous year and 0.7% higher than the previous quarter, according to the Office for National Statistics. The financial burdens have pushed many marriages to what feels like the brink.

Secondly, many marriages have come to the decision for divorce after a rise in domestic violence cases to exceptional numbers. Calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline were running at 49% higher than normal three weeks after the lockdown was introduced. There are countless reasons for divorce, but there are strong figures to suggest that the lockdown has led to these two main causes of the rise in divorce.

No time apart at work or the opportunity to speak with friends and family has made it extremely difficult to cope and to escape from growing tensions. For some couples, there were previous problems which have been amplified during the lockdown. For others, who were happily married up until now, frequent arguments with their spouse which would not have normally arisen has gotten the best of them.

Lockdown is an exceptionally exhausting time for everyone, and it is important for couples not to make any hasty decisions, as the vast majority of couples in our experience report difficulties with their mental health as part of the process of separation, notwithstanding our advice and support and commitment to adopting a constructive approach in dealing with family law disputes. Some tips we recommend for keeping healthy relationships in your household are:

– Clear communication to avoid misunderstandings and unnecessary bickering;

– Keeping physical space between you, where needed, and allowing the other space to recharge and breathe;

– Keeping in contact with friends and family over video calls etc. so that you do not feel trapped or alone. Socialising is a vital activity which has been disrupted and can be a significant cause in turmoil;

– Seek or suggest marriage counselling for advice and assistance if you are considering separation or you are finding it difficult to cope and need to help or guidance. As a firm, we are always happy to support clients at an early stage to explore alternative dispute resolution options.

– Alternatively, there is mediation, with large numbers of providers offering options online. Parties are required to attend a Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM) prior to making an application to court to see if mediation could be used to resolve any problems to avoid court altogether. The assessment will last around 45 minutes and you may be eligible for Legal Aid or free mediation. The purpose of a MIAM is to see if mediation is suitable and will tell you what mediation is, the likely benefits etc. If the MIAM concludes mediation is not appropriate, a legal application to court can commence.

Alternative dispute resolution options also have the benefit of saving the parties costs, a significant consideration during a recession when financial uncertainty and long-term job security is a particular concern.

If you have to go to court because you have exhausted all the alternative options or because non-court dispute resolution is unsuitable, e.g. there has been domestic abuse, the Black Antelope Family Law Team are here to advise and support you during this difficult time. To discuss alternative dispute resolution options or how to proceed with your divorce, please contact our Family Law Team.