Divorce and COVID-19 – Understanding your options and avoiding the pitfalls

For the past two months, COVID-19 has brought the divorce process in the UK to a virtual standstill.  The family courts have been severely restricted for most business and lockdown has meant many people delaying the start of divorce proceedings.  Couples who might in normal times have separated have been forced remain living together, and job losses and reductions in income have made divorce proceedings difficult to afford for others. 

With lockdown now being eased, we expect the courts to start moving again in the near future. Unfortunately we will still see many couples forced to live together, whether for financial reasons, or because they are still required to self-isolate. 

In this article we look at the practical considerations if you are living in one of these couples and how you can still start the divorce process.  All of the advice applies equally whether you are married or in a civil partnership.

Lockdown and the Grounds for Divorce

There are five legal grounds for divorce currently allowed in the UK:

  • Adultery
  • Unreasonable Behaviour
  • Desertion
  • 2 Years Separation with Consent
  • 5 Years Separation without Consent

All cases will involve looking at when you and your partner were living together, but lockdown causes particular difficulties for Adultery and Unreasonable Behaviour cases.

Adultery and Unreasonable Behaviour – the 6 Month Rule trap

Adultery and Unreasonable Behaviour are the two most common grounds for getting divorced as they don’t require you to remain married for two years or more after the breakdown of your relationship.  

Unfortunately, there is normally a 6 month time limit for starting divorce proceedings in these cases which means you can’t normally use them where:

  • Your partner commits adultery and you have known about it for more than 6 months but have continued to live with them; or
  • Your partner is behaving unreasonably but the last incident occurred over 6 months ago and you have continued to live with them (there are exceptions but they are likely to be difficult/costly to prove)

The obvious problem is that two months or more of enforced lockdown and living in the same household could tip you over the 6 month time limit, preventing you from starting divorce proceedings even though you had no choice but to live together.

If you are close to the 6 month deadline then it is important to act quickly and take legal advice, otherwise you will have to either wait for another act of adultery/unreasonable behaviour or wait two years for a divorce.  While the Government has talked about no fault divorces, it is unlikely to go through Parliament any time soon.

Can you avoid “Living Together” in lockdown?

It may be possible for you to satisfy the courts that you are not “living together” with your partner, even if you are sharing a house under lockdown.  In practice this means sleeping in separate beds, not cooking for your partner, eating dinner separately and not carrying out any household chores for your partner.  

This can be difficult to prove however, and you run the risk that the courts won’t accept that you found your spouse’s behaviour unreasonable, or that you didn’t really separate when you found out about their adultery.

Starting Divorce Proceedings under Lockdown

If you do decide to start divorce proceedings now, the good news is that we can still help.  The family courts no longer need an original marriage certificate when you issue divorce proceedings and the online divorce system allows us to start divorce proceedings during lockdown.  Provided you can produce an electronic copy of your marriage certificate we can upload it to the court and get things started on your behalf.

Contact us for expert help and advice

If you need expert advice on divorce and relationship breakdown at this difficult time, our family lawyers can help.  We offer free initial consultations and fixed price divorce packages, and our lawyers are members of Resolution and the Family Law Panel so you know you are getting the best possible advice.

The Backhouse Solicitors Team

Tel: 01245 893400
Email: [email protected]
Visit: 71 Duke Street, Chelmsford, Essex CM1 1JU (Currently only for pre-booked appointments)

Or send us a message through the Contact Us page on this website