Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland set to `fall two steps behind' England and Wales as no fault divorce after two years set to become law

One year after the DUP walked away from a deal to restore the Stormont executive, we examine the fallout over the past 12 months and the likelihood of the institutions being restored anytime soon...

Law Society president Suzanne Rice, a family lawyer with specialism in marital law. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye
Law Society president Suzanne Rice, a family lawyer with specialism in marital law. Picture by Kelvin Boyes/Press Eye

NORTHERN Ireland is set to "fall two steps behind" England and Wales if expected legislation is enacted to remove the need for separating couples to wait for years or allocate blame for the collapse of a marriage.

British justice secretary David Gauke confirmed he will bring in a bill for the reform in the next session of parliament.

Under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 in England and Wales, anyone seeking a divorce must either prove their partner is at fault through adultery, desertion or unreasonable behaviour, or if both sides agree, they can part after two years of separation. In the absence of consent or evidence of fault, applicants must wait until they have been living apart for five years.

Onerous law in north

However, in Northern Ireland the law is even more onerous on divorcing couples.

Law Society president Suzanne Rice, a family lawyer with specialism in marital law, said even if both parties agree the process cannot be completed, as in England and Wales, via paperwork alone.

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"The petitioner still has to come to court (in the north)," she said.

"The Matrimonial Causes Order of the late 1970s has never been updated or reformed. Lord Justice Gillen in his Civil and Family Law review paper suggested `no fault' divorces could be dealt with `on the papers'.

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"At present whether it is divorce on the grounds of adultery or five years (without blame) you still have to get divorced with the same procedure."

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High court fees

Ms Rice said with court fees at around £550 already higher here, the need to instruct solicitors and barristers for what is a simple administrative task in England and Wales makes divorce more expensive in the north.

When the new law comes in, as it is expected to later this year in England and Wales, Northern Ireland will be further adrift.

It will see no-fault divorces permitted after two years instead of five, with the longer time frame leading to protracted courtroom battles for couples.

Tini Owens case

There was widespread disquiet when Tini Owens was told in July she could not divorce her husband before five years had elapsed - because he contested the split - despite the fact they had been living separate lives since 2015.

Ms Rice said when it passes "we're two steps behind that again dealing with the position of having no fault divorce".

A Department of Finance spokeswoman confirmed that even a move to bring the north into line with current practice in England and Wales cannot proceed in the absence of an assembly.

'Devolved matter'

"The law relating to divorce is a devolved matter," she said.

"The shadow Family Justice Board has considered options for reforming the law in this jurisdiction, however in the absence of a minister/assembly, further progress has not been possible."