How has UK divorce law changed over time?


In its earliest form, the only way to successfully divorce in England and Wales was by private Act of Parliament which was hugely costly and only open to the very richest in the country.

The Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 was the first to permit ordinary people to divorce through an application to the court. Nevertheless, the only grounds for divorce were proven adultery, and the burden of proof was tougher for women, who had to also demonstrate aggravating grounds.

Since its inception in the mid-1800s, divorce cases have been heard in court with both parties represented by a divorce lawyer or family law solicitor.

Addition of irretrievable breakdown

Adultery was the only ground for divorce until 1937 when drunkenness, insanity and desertion were added as permissible grounds.

The largest change came in 1969 when the Divorce Reform Act changed the sole grounds for divorce to an irretrievable breakdown in the marriage. The Act and subsequent cases defined the five reasons for this which remain in place today.

Adultery and unreasonable behaviour are the two reasons for a divorce which do not require a period of separation. Desertion requires the respondent to have left without agreement for more than two years.

No-fault divorce

Where parties have been living separately it became possible to apply for divorce without demonstrating fault. A divorce could be granted where the parties have been living separately for two years or more so long as they agreed on the divorce. Where they do not agree, the court could grant a divorce after five years' separation.

Changes to proceedings made in the 1970s allowed the court to approve the petition after a brief overview of the paperwork in cases where the petition was not defended. This special procedure allows divorce to be conducted quickly and at less cost and is the route for almost all divorces today.

Latest changes

More recent changes have seen the adjustment of financial awards to recognise the contribution of stay-at-home partners to the family as equal to that of the partner who works to earn money for the family.

In another recent case, the Supreme Court in England ruled to recognise the legal status of a divorce-lawyer-prepared pre-nuptial agreement to limit the sum of money one party was entitled to receive from their considerably wealthy partner.

Contact Law works with family law solicitors throughout the UK - if you need to instruct a divorce lawyer call us on 0800 1777 162 or fill in the web-form opposite to talk to one of our advisors.

0800 1777 162
or fill in the form
Our trained advisor contacts you
Your chosen specialist solicitor calls you
Quick enquiry form
Area of law:
What our clients say about us
"This was the first time I've been to court, which was a nerve-racking experience for me. However, I felt very prepared, I understood my case and representation - this was down to you."
Gavin, criminal motoring, Oct 15
"Your service, and the prompt call back from your recommended firm was very good. I would not hesitate to call again or recommend your service."
Ian, employment law, Truro, July 15
"The firm were excellent, could not have been better! They are exactly what I need right now."
Linda, criminal defence, Thames Ditton, Jul 15
"Your contact and service was immediate and utmost professional, 10/10."
TF, conveyancing, Dudley, Jun 15
"I appreciate the service that you provide. I found you to be courteous, efficient and reassuring at a time when my confidence in justice is completely negative."
Patrick, litigation, Pontypridd, Jun 15
"I cannot tell you how much I appreciate the speed of which you came back to me in. If anyone else can benefit from your help like I have done, it would make my day."
Gail M, family law, Potters Bar, Jun 15
"Your assistance was extremely helpful. Particularly to someone who in 40 years of business has never experienced this sort of issue."
TD, commercial litigation, Galashiels, Apr 15
"It is difficult to express the value Contact Law has to someone like me who had very little understanding of the law and how to proceed forward with my case. Thank you for the service you provided."
AE, defamation law, Worthing, Apr 15
"Thank you for the efficient service I received. I was contacted by your solicitor on the same day as my request. Your quick response to my situation made me feel secure."
AN, employment law, London, Apr 15
"Your service was excellent, very fast and informative. I never got the impression of being pressurised at all. The solicitor you recommended was also excellent – very knowledgeable and supportive."
JHD, Motoring law, Liverpool, Apr 15
Contact Law supports the endeavours of STAE and commends all the work they are undertaking to assist in the plight of the Asian Elephant


We use cookies on the Contact Law site to help us improve it.

If you would like to allow our cookies, please click 'Continue' or carry on browsing. For more information on cookies and how to change your settings, click 'More info'.