The Evening Standard even reported that ‘London law firms are braced for a surge in divorce filings as couples struggle to live with each other during the coronavirus lockdown’.
Evidence from China seemed to back up this argument. The FT reported that more than a dozen Chinese cities reported a surge in divorce filings in March, as mandatory self-quarantine measures forced Chinese couples to spend more time together.
In April, Ayesha Vardag, one of Britain’s best-known divorce lawyers, said that clients had been contacting her and her team in droves even during lockdown.
“It’s been amazing how the calls have still kept coming in – two dozen a day,” she said. “They are finding lockdown is forcing their hand, they just can’t stand it anymore.”
Intuitively, this makes sense. Weeks on end in close confinement with a spouse is likely to result in a rise in the divorce rate as couples realise they can no longer continue to live with each other.
However, the truth may not be quite as you expect.
Often, one way to find out what is going on in a country is to analyse the nation’s Google trends.
It’s perhaps no surprise that the following terms experienced a huge spike in searches between January 18th and April 15th:
However, analysis of Google search trends by a leading marketing agency found that searches for “get a divorce” fell by 62% during this period.
The study by Reboot found that while it was unsurprising that searches for ‘cinema times’ and ‘taxi to airport’ fell dramatically, there also seemed to be less interest in divorce advice in the UK.
It’s important to note that the latest Ministry of Justice statistics for divorce cover the period between October and December 2019, so there is no firm evidence of the effect of the Covid-19 lockdown period on divorce.
However, in the absence of official statistics, Claire Blakemore, partner in the family law team at Withers, agrees that her experience mirrors the Google search analysis: “Our own experience is that divorce enquiries from clients have been below what we would normally expect.”
Divorce numbers have steadily declined as marriage numbers have also fallen in recent years, with ‘unmarried cohabiting couples’ having become the fastest growing family arrangement.
Changes to working practices in the UK mean you can now get divorced over Zoom, the popular video conferencing app.
Blakemore explains: “Divorce petitions can be concluded online, and couples can work through issues such as their finances and child arrangements from their own homes.
“They don’t have to face the often awkward and emotional situation of battling out their differences in court or be stuck without a solution if they can't get a hearing.
“It’s up to the judges to determine if remote hearings can take place, and there are many fewer cases taking place. Some of my clients' hearings have been adjourned at short notice but other hearings have gone ahead on paper without an oral application even being made.”
Zoë Bloom, a family solicitor at Keystone Law, adds that virtual divorce hearings are just as effective as in-person ones.
She says: “We have no in-person hearings but the whole profession has moved to virtual hearings and while they are not always perfect, they are working reasonably well and should not put you off.
“Hearings will be virtual until 1st September and thereafter the policy will be reviewed. Except in urgent cases (and some children-related cases) commencing proceedings now is unlikely to result in a hearing much before 1st September by which point the court may be open again.”
By mid-May 2020, around 8 million workers in the UK were being paid through the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (also known as the ‘furlough’ scheme).
In addition to this, unemployment rose by 856,000 to 2.1 million in April, the biggest monthly rise since modern records began in 1971. If you also add in around 5 million self-employed workers in the UK, the hit to the average pay packet of a British worker as a consequence of Covid-19 has been substantial.
In addition, turmoil in global stock markets has seen the value of pensions and investments fall sharply. At the worst point, the FTSE 100 index of Britain’s largest companies had fallen around 30% since the start of the year.
So, perhaps it’s the financial stress of the current situation that has resulted in a lower than expected number of divorces?
Claire Blakemore believes this is a factor. She says: “There are lots of reasons why this [a lower than expected divorce rate] might be so, and concerns about finances will be a major one as valuations of assets fall.
“What we have also seen is couples having difficulty sorting out temporary financial or children problems, such as disputes about how children spend time with each parent or whether financial agreements pending a divorce should be finalised.”
Government guidelines during the early weeks of the coronavirus lockdown were clear. Individuals were told to stay at home, and not to go outside unless it was for a vital reason such as daily exercise, to collect medicines, or for food.
As former government scientific adviser Professor Neil Ferguson found, mixing with members of other households was expressly against the rules. So, this could be another reason why couples have been forced to stay together during this period.
Blakemore adds: “On a personal level, it may be much harder to start the [divorce] process when you are stuck in the same house as your partner for an unknown amount of time to come. The statistics show that in 2019 it took on average over 12 months to get divorced.
“We have also found that it is much harder to get a hearing before a judge right now, as the courts try to manage what resources they have, and scheduled hearings are being adjourned at short notice. There will be far greater delays going forward.”
It is worth remembering that couples who are looking to separate and live apart can now do so. Since the government revised its coronavirus guidance for England in mid-May, people are now able to move house or look for somewhere else to live.
With social distancing set to continue for months, and the country easing its way back to something approaching normal, now might be the ideal time to use more creative ways to negotiate your split if you have decided to end your relationship.
If you can reach an agreement without the need for court action, the court can then rubber-stamp your agreement without the need for expensive court hearings.
Without firm evidence, it’s impossible to know whether there has been an increase in the divorce rate during lockdown.
The truth is that people may have fallen into one of two camps:
If you are considering divorcing, it’s important to consider all aspects of your financial settlement.
If you had joint life insurance policies, then it is possible these will be cancelled or transferred into the name of your ex-spouse. This could leave you short of cover.
To find out more about life insurance on divorce, compare life insurance here .