Understanding the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020

Dan Wren

The UK’s divorce laws have long been dubbed as archaic and outdated. The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 is expected to change this. Coming into force in autumn 2021, this new law is intended to completely transform the way that unhappy couples evidence the irretrievable breakdown of marriage, streamlining the process of divorce. 

This blog will take you through some of the key changes under this Act that we can expect to see in 2021. 


What’s the current divorce system?

Under the current system, a married couple looking to separate must evidence the irretrievable breakdown of marriage through one of five grounds: 

  • adultery
  • desertion
  • unreasonable behaviour
  • 2 years’ separation (with the other spouse’s consent)
  • 5 years’ separation (without their consent)

These grounds have been viewed as being too restrictive, trapping some individuals in unhappy or abusive relationships and marriages.


What will the new system do?

The new system aims to update the divorce process in line with the government’s attitude towards family law in ‘avoiding confrontation wherever possible and reducing its damaging effect on children in particular.’ 

The Act removes the need to play the ‘blame game’ through the five grounds, respecting that some married couples can drift apart amicably. As such, one partner or a couple can sign a sole or joint statement that the marriage has broken down and cannot be saved. This statement is all the evidence you need to commence a no-fault divorce.


How will contesting a divorce change?

The existing process allows one spouse to contest the divorce and attempt to disprove the evidence. This inevitably increases legal and court fees and can delay or block the separation. This system promotes conflict in what is already an extremely difficult or complex situation and can be particularly damaging for children to witness. 

The new law does away with the option for one partner to contest divorce, recognising that each partner has the right to decide whether they want to be in the relationship or not. 

This tackles unnecessary obstacles to separation that have previously left individuals trapped in unhappy marriages. It also aims to reduce the length, cost and hardship of divorce proceedings.


Streamlining the process

The timeline of the separation process has been amended, introducing a 20 week period of reflection. 

This period begins when a sole or joint statement is made and concludes with the granting of a conditional order of separation. It is a useful pause in the divorce process, intended to give uncertain couples time to seek counselling or turn back. Alternatively, the time can be used to consider some of the practicalities of divorce, preparing financial and childcare arrangements before the separation takes place.

At the end of the 20 week period of reflection, a conditional order is granted. From here, there is an additional 6 week period before the final order can be made to conclude the separation. This brings the combined timeline for a divorce to 26 weeks, or about 6 months, as demonstrated below:

  1. Statement of irretrievable breakdown is made
  2. 20 week period of reflection begins
  3. Conditional order is granted 
  4. 6 week period begins
  5. Final order is granted, officially severing the marriage

The streamlined process ensures that divorce proceedings do not drag on unnecessarily, while also guaranteeing both partners time for meaningful reflection prior to separation. 


Updated terminology

Some of the key terms relating to divorce have been replaced to make family law more understandable and accessible to non-lawyers. 

The ‘decree nisi’ is renamed ‘conditional order’ and ‘decree absolute’ is renamed ‘final order.’

Individuals submitting the application for divorce are renamed ‘applicants’ in place of the more traditional ‘petitioners.’